When Cyclone Nargis struck
"When we saw the storm track, I said, 'Uh, oh, this is not going to be good," said Mark Lander, a meteorology professor at the
Forecasters began tracking the cyclone April 28 as it first headed toward
Instead, it swept into the low-lying Irrawaddy delta in central
It was the first time such an intense storm hit the delta, said Jeff Masters, cofounder and director of meteorology at the San Francisco-based Weather Underground. He called it "one of those once-in-every-500-years kind of things."
"The easterly component of the path is unusual," Masters said. "It tracked right over the most vulnerable part of the country, where most of the people live."
When the storm made landfall early Saturday at the mouth of the Irrawaddy River, its battering winds pushed a wall of water as high as 12 feet some 25 miles inland, laying waste to villages and killing tens of thousands.
Most of the dead were in the delta, where farm families sleeping in flimsy shacks barely above sea level were swept to their deaths.
Almost 95 percent of the houses and other buildings in seven townships were destroyed,
"When you look at the satellite picture of before and after the storm, the effects look eerily similar to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in how it inundated low-lying areas," said Ken Reeves, director of forecasting for Accuweather.
The delta had lost most of its mangrove forests along the coast to shrimp farms and rice paddies over the past decade. That removed what scientists say is one of nature's best defenses against violent storms.
"If you look at the path of the storm that hit Myanmar, it hit exactly where it was going to do the most damage, and it's doing the most damage because much of the protective vegetation was cleared," said Jeff NcNeely, chief scientist for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, using the name that Burma's ruling military junta gave to the country.
"It's an expensive lesson, but it has been one taught repeatedly," he said. "You just wonder why governments don't get on this."
Despite assertions by
"Villagers were totally unaware," said 38-year-old Khin Khin Myawe, interviewed in the hard-hit delta town of
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