- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 8, 2008

NEW YORK — With the death toll expected to top 100,000, Burma’s military government blocked international aid workers from delivering relief supplies yesterday as bodies floated in stagnant waters left behind by Saturday’s cyclone.

The United Nations said its workers based outside Burma had not received a single visa and that Burmese officials were demanding that official escorts accompany all foreigners.

Foreign workers based inside Burma for U.N. agencies such as the World Food Program also had not received permission to travel through the hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta, where entire villages remained submerged.

Tin Win, the military leader of a ward in the town of Labutta, said dozens of villages in the hard-hit district, also named Labutta, have been wiped out by Cyclone Nargis, which lashed the southeast coastline with winds of up to 120 miles an hour.

“So far, the estimated death toll in those villages is about 80,000,” he told Agence France-Presse today.

Some survivors stripped clothes off the dead. People wailed as they described the horror of the torrent swept ashore by the cyclone, which appears certain to become one of the top 10 natural disasters of the past 100 years.

  • U.S. increases cyclone aid for Burma

    Video:Cyclone death toll could reach 100,000

  • “I don’t know what happened to my wife and young children,” Phan Maung, 55, told the Associated Press. He held on to a coconut tree until the water level dropped. By then, his family was gone.

    A spokesman for the U.N. Children’s Fund said its staff in Burma reported seeing many people huddled in crude shelters and children who had lost their parents. As many as 1 million Burmese have been made homeless by Nargis.

    The senior U.S. diplomat in the country, Shari Villarosa, told reporters by telephone that the situation is “horrendous” and that the death toll could top 100,000. She said she was citing an estimate of one international relief organization, which she declined to name.

    “There is a very real risk of disease outbreaks as long as this continues,” Miss Villarosasaid.

    Some international aid made it into the country. But reports of convoys loaded with tons of supplies held up at border crossings and U.S. Navy ships waiting offshore for permission to deliver food, drinking water and medicine prompted warnings of a tragedy rivaling the December 2004 tsunami.

    “We are deeply concerned about the growing humanitarian crisis in Burma,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Washington.

    “We know that there are many, many, many people who need the help of the international community. … There are millions and millions of dollars waiting to be delivered that can help the Burmese people to get through this difficult time.

    “There are assistance teams, including an American assistance team that would be ready to help the people of Burma. And what remains is for the Burmese government to allow the international community to help its people.”

    The United States has about $3 million in relief anchored offshore ready to deliver once it has permission from Burma’s military junta, one of the world’s most repressive governments.

    Aid agencies with local staff have been schlepping emergency supplies to submerged coastal areas by boat and on foot. Still, relief officials said there is a long way to go before significant assistance arrives where it is most needed.

    “I think we are making progress. I hope so,” John Holmes, the top U.N. official for disaster relief, said in New York, obviously straining to put on a positive face as he briefed reporters.

    He expressed gratitude that the government had consented to receive foreign aid, release casualty figures and accept the accounting standards that accompany U.N. emergency relief.

    The United Nations and other aid organizations are generally reluctant to criticize the host country’s handling of a natural disaster, in part because they don’t want to antagonize those who make crucial decisions about assistance. Brittle courtesy is especially important with Burma, a military dictatorship that is deeply suspicious of foreigners.

    Mr. Holmes said it was still not clear who would eventually distribute the supplies, where and to whom.

    The government has indicated that it expects to be the major partner in distribution, U.N. officials said, a situation the world body can accept only if it has monitoring or oversight.

    “It’s clear to all of us that we are faced here with a major catastrophe, particularly in the Irrawaddy Delta,” Mr. Holmes said, acknowledging that “aid efforts are clearly not up to the task at the moment.”

    Mr. Holmes, a Briton who heads the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that the United Nations would not accept racial or ethnic discrimination in the distribution of relief supplies, and that commodities would be monitored as best they could.

    Some international charities, known as nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, have long been in active in Burma, using local staff.

    “Most urgent need is food and water,” Andrew Kirkwood, head of Save the Children, in Rangoon, told the Associated Press. “Many people are getting sick. The whole place is under saltwater, and there is nothing to drink. They can’t use tablets to purify saltwater.”

    State-run television said that assistance had arrived from Japan, Bangladesh, Laos, Thailand, China, India and Singapore — all Asian neighbors.

    At least 30 nations had pledged some form of support for Burma, which its military rulers renamed Myanmar after a 1962 coup.

    The combined offers are worth about $30 million in cash and commodities, but that figure is sure to rise when OCHA issues a detailed emergency appeal later this week.

    The International Committee of the Red Cross said it has donated medical supplies to its Burmese counterpart and, like a dozen other relief agencies, stands ready to deliver emergency provisions such as food, generators and other essential items as soon as it receives clearance from the government.

    Nicholas Kralev in Washington contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.


    The following are some of the worst natural disasters of the past 100 years:

    August 1931 - Flooding of China’s Huang He River - 3.7 million killed

    Nov. 13, 1970 - Cyclone in Bangladesh - 300,000 killed

    July 28, 1976 - Earthquake in China’s Hebei province - 242,000 killed

    Dec. 16, 1920 - Earthquake in Ningxia, China - 235,000 killed

    Dec. 26, 2004 - Tsunami in the Indian Ocean - 220,000 killed

    May 22, 1927 - Earthquake in China’s Nanshan province - 200,000 killed

    Sept. 1, 1923 - Earthquake and fire in Yokohama, Japan - 140,000 killed

    Dec. 28, 1908 - Earthquake and tidal wave in Messina, Italy - 83,000 killed

    May 31, 1970 - Earthquake and avalanche at Mount Huascaran, Peru - 66,800 killed

    Dec. 26, 2003 - Earthquake at Bam, Iran - 32,000 killed

    Sources: World Almanac, World Book Encyclopedia, Agence France-Presse

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