Rain hit with such speed 'it left marks on their faces'
by GEOFFREY YORK, With a report from Matthew Trevisan in Toronto, The Globe and Mail, May 7, 2008
Devastation unimaginable - aid workers stunned to find survivors with 'visible scars, almost burns' as Myanmar toll climbs to 22,000 dead and 41,000 missing
BEIJING, China -- The toll continued to rise yesterday in the aftermath of a catastrophic cyclone in Myanmar, with 22,000 people dead and officials acknowledging that 41,000 more are missing. More than a million survivors are without food, water, electricity or telephones.
Relief workers who finally reached the survivors of Myanmar's cyclone Nargis yesterday were stunned to find scars on their faces, evidence of the ferocity of the rain storm.
"They had visible scars, almost burns, on their faces from the driving force of the rain," said Paul Risley, a spokesman for the United Nations World Food Program. "The rain had pelted them at such a velocity that it left marks on their faces. Our workers had never seen that before."
UN assessment teams were struggling to reach the hardest-hit villages in the Irrawaddy delta, the main rice-producing region of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, where roads are almost impassable. When they did arrive, relief-agency helicopters encountered corpses scattered across the rice fields that bore the brunt of the storm.
Many people were killed by a massive 3½-metre-high tidal wave that crashed through the delta at the peak of the storm. "It swept away and inundated half the houses in low-lying villages," Maung Maung Swe, Myanmar's Minister for Relief and Resettlement, said in Rangoon yesterday. "They did not have anywhere to flee."
In the town of Bogalay in the delta region, 95 per cent of the houses were destroyed, he said.
The first trickle of relief supplies was beginning to reach some survivors yesterday, but Myanmar's military regime was still limiting the flow of food supplies and relief workers to the long-isolated country.
The regime is forcing all foreign relief workers to apply for entry visas, a process that can take several days. Some UN aid workers, who had wanted to go to Myanmar three days ago, will not be able to enter the devastated country until tomorrow because of delays in issuing them visas.
Other aid workers were still awaiting visas without any indication of when they will get them. The regime said the aid workers would have to "negotiate" for access to the country.
"It's been a very difficult process to get the government to accept offers of international assistance," Mr. Risley said.
U.S. President George W. Bush urged the military regime to allow U.S. experts to assess the extent of the disaster. Two U.S. Navy ships, loaded with relief supplies for a nearby disaster-relief exercise, were heading toward Myanmar yesterday, without any assurance that they will be allowed to distribute their supplies.
"We're prepared to move U.S. Navy assets to help find those who've lost their lives, to help find the missing, to help stabilize the situation," Mr. Bush said. "But in order to do so, the military junta must allow our disaster-assessment teams into the country."
Myanmar's military junta prefers to receive bilateral aid from donor countries, which allows the regime to control its distribution. Thailand and India have already sent shipments of relief supplies to Myanmar, but the UN warned that those shipments are unco-ordinated. "The UN is very concerned that this will lead to a haphazard response," Mr. Risley said. "There is an urgent need for co-ordination."
The French government also complained about Myanmar's attempts to win control of the aid distribution. "The United Nations is asking the Burmese government to open its doors," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told parliament. "The Burmese government replies, 'Give us money, we'll distribute it.' We can't accept that."
Tin Maung Htoo, executive director of Canadian Friends of Burma, said it's wishful thinking to expect that the Myanmar regime will shift to more democratic ways as a result of allowing foreigners to assist the country.
"This time we should focus on the relief effort first, but in return, I think, I'm hoping that the military will realize that these international people have good intentions," Mr. Htoo said.
Not everyone was discouraged. Ramesh Shrestha, the Unicef representative in Myanmar, said the biggest problem facing relief efforts is a logistical one.
"The whole area is flooded," he said. "Lots of bridges have collapsed. Hundreds of trees have fallen and are blocking the highways. The military is helping to clear the road and airlifting their supplies."
Unicef Canada announced yesterday it has launched an emergency appeal for funding to assist cyclone victims.
Mr. Shrestha was visiting family in Canada when the cyclone hit but spoke with workers in Myanmar, who relayed stories to him about contaminated wells, serious damage to crops and blocked seaports.
"Our office had a meeting with the Foreign Ministry and we were assured there would be free access to the UN and the international staff for movement and distribution of supplies, and we have been assured the same for visas; once [relief workers] apply for the visa, it will be granted."
The World Food Program, with the help of a Dutch relief agency, distributed 30 tonnes of food from its local warehouse to homeless survivors at feeding centres in Rangoon yesterday. It is aiming to send another 26 tonnes of food to Myanmar in two flights from Thailand today. But a full-scale airlift or "air bridge"
will be needed, as it was during the tsunami that devastated much of Southeast Asia in 2004, Mr. Risley said.
The 30 tonnes of aid delivered yesterday is a small amount, barely enough for 2,000 people to be fed for several weeks, he said.
Assessment teams in a township near Rangoon found that 27,000 homeless survivors were living in 42 shelters, including schools and monasteries, Mr. Risley said. Only 10 of the 42 shelters had any food or water. "The health situation in those shelters is reported to be deteriorating."
In another district with a population of 140,000, about 40,000 are missing in the cyclone's wake, he said. "This is an extreme crisis. If these numbers hold up in other places, the death toll will likely continue to rise."
According to the Canadian Friends of Burma, 3,000 to 4,000 Myanmarese expatriates moved to Canada since the pro-democratic uprisings in 1988. Many of those people who have relatives living in the Irrawaddy delta have been trying anxiously to reach them with no luck. Land lines and cellular contact have been disrupted since the cyclone hit last Friday.
Timothy Zaw Zaw, a 39-year-old who lives in Mississauga, has been trying to reach his mother and two sisters in Rangoon. He also has relatives in Singapore, India and Thailand trying to get through.
"I'm concerned for their safety," he said. "I'm trying to contact them as much as possible."
In an e-mail to family members, Canadian Andrew Kirkwood, the Myanmar program director for Save the Children, wrote that "there is no power in the city (and therefore no running water) and won't be for a month."
"As you've probably seen on the news, the scale of the devastation here is unimaginable. We estimate 50,000 dead and millions homeless. We're going to be mounting a huge logistics operation for at least a year - we're all going to be working flat out for the foreseeable future."
Dave Toycen, president and CEO of World Vision Canada, said 580 relief workers from his organization are in the process of providing bottled water, tents, tarpaulins, clothing and emergency medicines to affected areas.
"I think it's a good news/bad news story," he said. "The good news is, we've got almost 600 staff on ground doing basic relief work. The bad news is, the numbers keep going up and it still appears the aid is simply not moving in fast enough."