Myanmar cyclone: Relief teams ready to respond


NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Relief teams are moving to respond in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which struck Myanmar, a country in Southeast Asia also known as Burma, early May 3. The situation is deteriorating in the aftermath of the cyclone, which left as many as 70,000 dead or missing according to the Myanmar government. Some agencies report the death toll estimates at nearly 100,000 and the clock is ticking for survivors without any assistance.

Nearly half the country's population, some 24 million people, have been affected by the storm, which knocked out electricity in Yangon, the country's largest city, and left up to 1 million people homeless. The United Nation's World Food Program said some villages have been virtually wiped out and vast rice-growing areas destroyed from the cyclone's winds of up to 120 mph.

U.S. relief teams are frustrated by the Myanmar government's refusal to accept help for the growing crisis. USAID's Director of Foreign Disaster Assistance Ky Luu complained about the lack of response from the Myanmar government to grant U.S. requests for visas.

Two United Nations relief planes have arrived in Myanmar, Thursday, May 8, carrying seven tons of high-energy biscuits enough to feed 2500 people for one day according to statement from the United Nations. A disaster assistance agency has hinted that the U.S. might ignore the government and airdrop supplies to desperate survivors.

Relief organizations are concerned about outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria and illnesses such as diarrhea that often occur in the wake of natural disasters because of dirty water and poor sanitation.

Samaritan's Purse relief workers, non-U.S. workers, arrived in Myanmar two days after the deadly.

A team of water specialists from Canada and additional Samaritan's staff members from six countries are assembling at a staging area in Bangkok, capital of neighboring Thailand.

"The city and country are in shock," said one of our staff members in Myanmar. "Yangon has been heavily hit. Trees and power lines are down, and water availability is severely limited."

In Yangon, Myanmar, World Vision National Director James Tumbuan described a chaotic scene: "Yangon totally collapsed. All the roads were blocked with fallen trees. The way Yangon used to look, with its big trees, has been totally changed.

"Getting drinking water is a real problem," Tumbuan continued. "We need water purification units like those that were used in the tsunami. It could take days to get the electricity back."

Tumbuan said thousands of people are now camped in government schools in and around Yangon. He noted that one school in particular was now sheltering 5,000 people.

Dr. Kyi Minn, World Vision's regional HIV and AIDS adviser, said from Yangon: "The destruction is unbelievable. Elderly people are saying this is the worst storm they have ever seen."

Baptist Global Response, a Southern Baptist international relief and development organization, is working with its local partners in Myanmar to get an on-ground assessment of the situation, but the massive disruption of communications and travel ports is making that difficult, said Jeff Palmer, executive director of Baptist Global Response. Stringent rules placed upon foreigners by the military government also complicate matters.

"At this time, BGR is doing all it can to assess and respond to this urgent need," Palmer said. "We have made initial contact with some on-ground partners and have readied funds to be used for food, shelter and other emergency needs.

"It looks, however, as if it will be a few days before we can get government permission and resources in place to respond in an adequate manner," Palmer added. "This seems to be a pattern that all relief and development agencies are experiencing at this point.

"Please pray for the people of Myanmar and those who are suffering," Palmer said. "Pray also that we will find ways to get to the people in need in a timely manner."

Myanmar's military regime has signaled it will welcome aid from international organizations, which is unusual because the isolated country usually is suspicious of international organizations and closely controls their activities.

Ways to help those in Myanmar (click on the names below):

Red Cross

World Vision

Baptist Global Response

Samaritan's Purse

BP news used in this report