Burma: Relief Efforts

Locals make their way past a fallen tree following a devastating cyclone, Sunday, May 4, 2008, in Yangon, Myanmar. Myanmar announced Tuesday it is delaying a crucial constitutional referendum in areas badly hit by the cyclone that killed more than 10,000 people and may have left as many as a million homeless. Officials feared the death toll could soar.
Locals make their way past a fallen tree following a devastating cyclone, Sunday, May 4, 2008, in Yangon, Myanmar. Myanmar announced Tuesday it is delaying a crucial constitutional referendum in areas badly hit by the cyclone that killed more than 10,000 people and may have left as many as a million homeless. Officials feared the death toll could soar. (AP )
Matthew Cochrane
Spokesman, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
Tuesday, May 6, 2008; 12:00 PM

The death toll from a 120-mph cyclone that tore through Burma last weekend has exceeded 22,000, with tens of thousands of others still missing, Burmese state radio reported Tuesday. As international aid efforts began to accelerate, the growing casualty count made clear the scope of a storm that wiped entire villages from the map. Wire services reporting from Burma said that government-run radio had in new broadcasts upped the number of confirmed dead to 22,464, with as many as 41,000 missing.

Matthew Cochrane, spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, established to coordinate international relief actions and promote humanitarian activities, was online Tuesday, May 6, at Noon ET to discuss the latest news regarding the situation in the Southeast Asian country.

"The biggest priorities at this stage are emergency shelter and access to clean water," said Cochrane in an interview with "In the wake of disasters such as this, affected people are exposed to potential outbreaks of water borne diseases -- it is vital that they are able to get clean water."

A transcript follows.


Matthew Cochrane: Hi everyone. Thanks very much for this opportunity. I'm looking forward to answering your questions today. The situation in Myanmar is only now becoming clear. We have assessments coming in that such this is a very serious disaster for the country and for the region.

95 per cent of homes in some villages have been destroyed, and as many as 1 million people affected. Our response is underway, but it's clear that much more will be needed.



Arlington, Va.: I was reading in the Bangkok Post this morning that the Burmese government is dragging its feet in issuing visas to the aid teams. I know you have in-country staff who have been hard at work, but have you had any difficulty getting your teams into the country? I also read that the Thais and Chinese were allowed to bring in some supplies but that they had to drop them at the airport and no one knows for sure if they are actually being deployed to the people who need them. Is there any chance that this event and the junta's slow response could lead to more unrest and protests among the already desperate populace?

Matthew Cochrane: We've sent in our regional disaster management coordinator from Bangkok - he went in this morning. We're also looking to send in some other people from the region to support our existing team, and of course, there are about 17,000 local Red Cross volunteers already at work. We've been working closely with authorities to obtain necessary visas, and this morning's deployment was a positive sign.

Re shipments of aid: we plan to send in an initial consignment of emergency shelter kits and hopefully we'll be able to follow that up pretty soon.


Sorry to be cynical, but...:...should we trust the casualty numbers quoted by the Myanmar government? Obviously there has been a terrible tragedy and aid is needed urgently, but should we accept the figures quoted on state radio as a reliable estimate? The state regime is hardly an ally to the west. Shouldn't we seek the evaluations of independent agencies before we cite deaths in the range of 40,000?

Matthew Cochrane: I'm' not - the Red Cross isn't - in the position to verify these figures, so I can't say for sure. That said, the reports that we are getting back from the field of the scale of the devastation suggest that the figures being reported now (approx. 22,000) are realistic.

But our focus is on quickly assessing the damage and the needs, and making sure that we can get the aid out to those who need it most.


Sun Prairie, Wisc.: Good morning, Mr. Cochrane, and thank you for doing this chat.

American naval assets provided emergency assistance after the 2004 tsunami in Sumatra and later after the earthquake in Pakistan. To your knowledge, has this kind of assistance been requested of either India or the United States? Are there naval vessels from either country in the vicinity of the Burmese coast?

Matthew Cochrane: That's a pleasure.

I can't say for sure. There have been reports of shipments heading to the country from India and Thailand, but I don't know about the US.

We have a consignment of emergency shelter kits that we're hoping to get into the country tomorrow... We're hoping to fly them in from our regional headquarters in Kuala Lumpur.


Bethesda, Md.: I hate to do a silver lining in the face of so much misery, but is this horrible event an opening for the people of Myanmar to connect with the outside world and perhaps for other nations to exert some positive influence on the repressive government?

Matthew Cochrane: I wouldn't speculate on the longer term outcomes of this disaster. For many people in the country, there's no silver lining - in the face of so much misery as you say.


Washington, D.C.: Which is correct: Burma or Myanmar?

My map says Myanmar. The WP says Burma.

Matthew Cochrane: We use Myanmar, following the lead of the local Red Cross. People do use them interchangeably and it's easy to follow.

Matthew Cochrane: Hi there. We use Myanmar, following the lead of the local Red Cross.


Washington, D.C.: Do individual people need to send money or supplies?

Matthew Cochrane: Hi and thanks for your generous question. At this stage we are preparing an appeal - we hope to have it ready to go today, and we'll post it at

I'd suggest, though, that you visit the American Red Cross Web site - you should be able to find information on this.

Thanks and have a good day.

_______________________ American Red Cross


Re: Washington, D.C. -- money or supplies: Matthew,

Please urge people not to send supplies. As you're probably well aware, supplies will likely just clog up the airports/seaports and most aid donated by individuals is not needed. Please urge people to donate money to NGOs, IO, etc. ... Let the experts use the money to get what's needed. The last thing we need is a congested airport/seaport full of used clothes and canned food goods. Please pass this message on. Thank you.

Matthew Cochrane: Well said. We always urge people to contribute funds, rather than supplies.

Thanks for that clarification.



Washington, D.C.: What's the best way for me to help from D.C.?

Matthew Cochrane: Hi in DC. Visit the American Red Cross Web site - they will be able to direct you if you want to support.

Thanks very much,



Fairfax, Va.: Will the government be allowing the aid shipments into the country? What changed their minds? I thought they generally do not accept such aid.

Matthew Cochrane: Hi there. The government is allowing aid shipments. I think the impetus has been the scale of the disaster.


Washington, D.C.: Obviously, the Red Cross is doing good and important work, and needs financial donations. However, one organization can't do it all, and the sub-contracting process is long and labor-intensive. So please consider reminding readers of this chat that other humanitarian aid organizations are also operational on site, and in need of donations.

Matthew Cochrane: Absolutely. An important point very well made. No organization can respond to a disaster of this scale on their own. It's important that we coordinate with other organizations (UN, NGOs, etc) so that we can se our resources most effectively and reach as many people as we can.

We've already been in close coordination with other actors - in Myanmar, in the region and here in Geneva. It's so important.


Arlington, Va.: Can you tell us a little about the challenges of reaching some of the areas affected? I can't imagine there are good roads, etc. What do you know?

Matthew Cochrane: Hi there. Great question. There are some significant challenges in terms of logistics... Roads have been washed away or made impassable, electricity is down across the country, as are telecommunications. These are serious challenges and we need to find our way through them quickly over the coming vital days.


Montreal, QC, Canada: Hi Matt. Do you mind naming off some of the other organizations that you know of that have members on the ground in country at the moment?

Matthew Cochrane: Hi there. I can't give you an exhaustive list. I know that in conversations that I have had that a number of organizations are negotiating to get access.


Annapolis, Md.: Are volunteers needed to go there and help? If so, how does one go about it?

Matthew Cochrane: Hi. Not at this stage, we working very closely with Myanmar Red Cross and their volunteers obviously. We're also looking to send in additional assistance from the region.

Thanks for the offer though,



Washington, D.C.: What is being done to address medical needs in the affected towns (spread of disease, treatment of injured, etc.)?

Matthew Cochrane: We're very, very concerned about the health of people affected. Unfortunately we often see in the wake of disasters of this type a 'secondary disaster' - outbreaks of water borne diseases, etc.

We looking to provide as much bottled water and purification tablets as we can, as well as distributing treated bed nets to protect against mosquitoes.


McLean, Va.: How does this compare to the tsunami that occurred in the Indonesian area of the world?

Matthew Cochrane: It's hard to compare one disaster from another. In this case, it's not even necessary - this stands alone as a very serious disaster.

Though, that said, I was looking at photos from NASA today that showed the Irrawaddy delta before the storm and after the storm, and they are very reminiscent of the famous shots of Banda Aceh before and after the tsunami.

You can take a look at them at our Web site

Myanmar: relief operation underway as full extent of devastation becomes clear (IFRC News, May 6)


For Montreal: I know that CARE International is on the ground there. Also, Save the Children.

Matthew Cochrane: Great, thanks. Both wonderful organizations.


Arlington, Virginia: I would also like to reiterate that the best response to this emergency is a cash donation to a responsible, experienced relief agency. Valuable information about why "Cash is Best" is available on Center for International Disaster Information and PSAid. An updated list of US-based NGOs responding to this emergency will be available for viewing this afternoon.

Matthew Cochrane: Thanks for that. A great resource.

_______________________ Center for International Disaster Information


Matthew Cochrane: That's it for me everyone. Thanks very much for your questions - I've really enjoyed it.

My hope is that this disaster doesn't disappear out of the public eye in the coming days. As I've said above, this really is a massive calamity, and the people of Myanmar are going to require a lot of assistance to get back on their feet and start towards recovery.

For information on the response, please keep an eye on our Web site or the American Red Cross Web site

Thanks and all the best,



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