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May 7, 2008

MYANMAR/CYCLONE AFTERMATH
International aid starts trickling in

The worst hit Ayeyarwaddy (Irrawaddy) delta, the nation's rice bowl where 22,000 people perished and twice as many are missing, remained cut off from the world as international aid began to trickle into Myanmar on Tuesday.

The UN’s World Food Program said international aid began to flow, with 800 tons of food getting through to the first of nearly 1 million people left homeless by the cyclone.

Concerns mounted over the lack of food, water and shelter in the delta region and adjacent Yangon, where nearly a quarter of Myanmar's 57 million people live, as well as the spread of disease in a country with one of the world's worst health systems.

After days of little military presence in the streets, soldiers were out Tuesday clearing massive felled trees with power saws and axes and using their bare hands to lift debris into trucks.

State television MRTV played up the effort, showing images of a government truck distributing water in Yangon, former capital, though residents said they hadn't seen any water trucks around the city. There were no images of the hundreds of monks helping the recovery effort.

However, coastal areas of the delta worst hit by the high winds and tidal surges were out of reach for aid workers, isolated by flooding and road damage.

A C-130 military transport plane carrying government aid from neighboring Thailand flew into Yangon, where an Associated Press reporter watched it unload rice, canned fish, water and dried noodles. The goods- the first overseas aid to arrive in the stricken nation - were transferred to a helicopter, which Myanmar military officers said would ferry them to the most stricken areas.

Myanmar state radio on Tuesday said most of the 22,464 dead, as well as the 41,000 missing, were in the densely populated Ayeyarwaddy delta, home to 6 million people. It said 671 were killed in the Yangon area.

The death toll is the highest from a natural disaster in southeast Asia since the tsunami of December 2004 killed 229,866 people in Indonesia, Thailand and other parts of southeast and south Asia.

Inadequate warnings about the approaching storm has been blamed for the high death toll and damages. As the cyclone came bearing down on Myanmar late Friday, television broadcasts warned of 120-mph winds and 12-foot storm surges.

But electricity is so spotty in Myanmar that few households, especially in the poor rural areas that were worst hit, were aware of the warnings.
A report on Wednesday in a Bangkok daily said Myanmar citizens were not given enough notice to prepare for Cyclone Nargis despite weather advisory from Thailand-based Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre.

Myanmar’s Department of Meteorology and Hydrology was told of the formation of Cyclone Nargis a week in advance, but the country was not prepared to handle a disaster of this magnitude, according to Bhichit Rattakul, executive director of Thailand-based Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre (ADPC).

He was quoted as saying Tuesday that one of the first warnings came from the US Navy’s Joint Typhoon Warning Centre, which issued an alert on April 27.

The ADPC, which established an Asia-Pacific-wide early-warning centre for natural disasters at Thailand's Asian Institute of Technology in the wake of 2004 tsunami disaster, forecast the tropical cyclone in the Bay of Bengal, he said.

Meanwhile, the UN World Food Program offered a grim assessment of the destruction: up to 1 million people homeless, some villages almost totally destroyed and vast rice-growing areas wiped out.


Rice futures rose Tuesday in response to the news that vast swaths of Myanmar's rice-growing areas had been wiped out. Myanmar grows 11 million tons of rice per year but exports only a small fraction, representing about 1.7 percent of world trade, according to USDA figures.

It had been forecast to export about 400,000 tons this year, and concerns that Myanmar may not meet that target helped push U.S. rice futures 10 cents higher to settle at $21.15 per 100 pounds Tuesday on the Chicago Board of Trade.



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