Burma Says Storm Killed 15,000

Tropical Cyclone Nargis hit the nation's largest city and rice-producing delta on May 3, 2008. More storms headed toward the country as the U.N. warned that inadequate relief efforts could lead to rising death tolls.
By Amy Kazmin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 6, 2008

BANGKOK, May 6 -- The death toll from a 120-mph cyclone that tore through Burma last weekend has reached 15,000, with 10,000 killed in just one town, a top official told the nation Tuesday.

Survivors struggled to get the injured to clinics, locate drinkable water and clear fallen trees in the aftermath of the storm. Rangoon, the largest city in the impoverished country, remained without electric power.

Burma's government, which is traditionally wary of international aid workers, issued a rare appeal for outside help. The United Nations, the United States, Britain and the European Union all expressed willingness to assist, while India said Monday that it was already dispatching two naval ships with relief supplies.

Nearly all of those killed were in the rice-growing Irrawaddy Delta region, Foreign Minister Nyan Win said Tuesday on state television, in a broadcast monitored by the Reuters news service. Bogalay Township was devastated by the storm, with about 10,000 dead, he said.

The official indicated that the country's death toll could climb higher, noting that 3,000 people were still missing. He said the government was still assessing damage in remote villages.

The call for international aid quickly became politicized. In Washington on Monday, first lady Laura Bush, long a critic of military rule in Burma, accused the country's government of failing to give a timely warning to people in the cyclone's path and of blocking delivery of international aid.

But Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said that the Burmese authorities "are receptive to international assistance" and that "discussions are taking place in New York and on the ground about what is needed, what the U.N. can provide and how to get it to the people."

U.N. officials said hundreds of thousands of people -- left homeless after the storm flattened fragile bamboo-and-thatch homes -- are in urgent need of clean drinking water and shelter. Teams from the local Red Cross have already begun distributing plastic sheeting and water-purification tablets from existing stockpiles in the country, but Horsey said far more will be needed, given the scale of the disaster.

The full extent of the damage will not be known for several days, as communications are still poor and roads remain obstructed, he said. "It will take some days to get a complete picture," he said. Burmese state television showed soldiers working to clear trees from a road; news photos showed a team of Buddhist monks doing the same.

The United Nations and authorities are discussing how to import large quantities of relief supplies -- such as the sheeting and the water-treatment tablets -- without getting slowed by cumbersome customs procedures, as well as how to quickly obtain visas for U.N. staff to help oversee the relief operation.

In past years, Burma's military leaders opened the country's doors to some foreign aid organizations, especially to help cope with a serious HIV/AIDS epidemic. But recently they have grown highly suspicious of international aid workers, subjecting their movements to ever-tighter controls.

Relations between the government and the United Nations also grew prickly after the junta's violent suppression of massive anti-government protests last September.

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