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Cyclone Death Toll Soars as Myanmar Reels From Disaster

May 6, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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The estimated death toll from Saturday's cyclone in Myanmar increased to 22,000 Tuesday with 41,000 still missing and possibly 1 million left homeless, according to relief agencies. The head of the U.S. embassy in Rangoon and a reporter recap the situation.

GWEN IFILL: We begin tonight with two updates on the deadly cyclone in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

First, Judy Woodruff spoke earlier today with Shari Villarosa, the top U.S. diplomat in Rangoon.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ms. Villarosa, you’re in Burma’s largest city, Rangoon. The cyclone passed right over this area. Tell us what the situation is there now.

SHARI VILLAROSA, U.S. Embassy Burma: Some of the downed trees have started being removed. People report some water being restored.

However, there’s still no electricity in most of the city, other than the few people that have generators. And fuel supplies are running low, so even the possibility of generators is becoming more problematical.

In terms of food, the prices are skyrocketing. There’s not a lot food on the market. And then what is available, they have raised the prices significantly, I think causing increasing public discontent in the city, because they’re not hearing anything from the government about plans to restore normal services and what’s next and so people are getting increasingly desperate.

Aid urgently needed

JUDY WOODRUFF: What evidence do you see of this discontent and, as you say, people getting more desperate?

SHARI VILLAROSA: What they tell us, in terms of their unhappiness with the situation, and why aren't we getting more information, what is going to be done for us, we have had a few reports of looting and scenes at grocery stores trying to get food in markets. They're not widespread, but if this continues it could become more violent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what is the government there saying about the Irrawaddy Delta? This is the vulnerable, low-lying area that was hit so hard.

SHARI VILLAROSA: It appears that there was massive, massive destruction there. The way it was explained to us yesterday, the storm hit late at night. This is an area right at sea level.

And the storm was accompanied by 12-foot storm surges, which literally washed over the area while people were sleeping and swept them away. So massive destruction; 95 percent of the buildings there are down.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Has the government there made a decision about letting more international assistance in, cooperating with the U.S., and letting U.S. Navy ships move in?

SHARI VILLAROSA: We have offered a disaster assistance response team to come in. And these are disaster assistance professionals who do an assessment of what particular aid is needed. Obviously, Rangoon needs something very different from the delta area.

And these teams usually work with other donors to coordinate so that you make sure that all the damaged areas are covered. And thus far, the government hasn't indicated any willingness to accept these sort of disaster assistance experts to make sure that the assistance gets to those in need.

They have said that they will accept assistance in terms of commodities: roofing materials, mosquito nets, water purification. But they have not yet indicated that they will approve the disaster assistance people to come in to assist with the delivery.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is known about those who are injured, those who aren't getting food, not getting enough water? Are we talking about thousands of people, tens of thousands?

SHARI VILLAROSA: Potentially millions. The area that the storm passed, I think, has an estimated population of 15 million to 20 million people. This is the largest city in the country and has about a population of around 5 million or 6 million, Rangoon itself.

People who have lived here all their life have told us that they have never seen destruction on this scale. Without water, the sanitation breaks down, which increases the likelihood of disease.

What we're hearing about the destruction in the Irrawaddy delta can only be even worse, much, much worse.

Government reaction still hushed

Shari Villarosa
U.S. Embassy, Myanmar
My hope is that they will realize that the international community has a genuine desire to assist in the recovery from this massive destruction and that they will permit the international community to come in and help.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And are you in contact with the Burmese government?

SHARI VILLAROSA: Yes, we had a meeting with them yesterday. And the U.N. is meeting also, because they also have their own assessment teams that they're trying to get in. Other donors have made the same point, that these are very important to ensure a well-managed, coordinated response.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So far, is there any sign of give or change on the part of the government's attitude there?


JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, as you prepare for the rest of this night there in Rangoon, what are your expectations?

SHARI VILLAROSA: My expectations? I cannot begin to predict how the ruling generals think. My hope is that they will realize that the international community has a genuine desire to assist in the recovery from this massive destruction and that they will permit the international community to come in and help.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. charge d'affaires in Burma, Shari Villarosa, joining us from Rangoon. Thank you very much for talking with us.


Comparisons to 2004 tsunami

GWEN IFILL: Our next update comes from Seth Mydans, Southeast Asia correspondent for the New York Times. Judy spoke with him earlier today from Bangkok, Thailand.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Seth, first, what are you hearing about the scope of the damage?

SETH MYDANS, The New York Times: It was, in a way, similar to the tsunami of 2004 when people were suddenly hit by a wall of water without knowing what was happening and that's the end. So entire communities were wiped out, as I understand, similar to what happened in some areas with the tsunami.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Can you describe that area to us? I know you've been in Burma. What is that area like?

SETH MYDANS: It's a very fertile, rice-growing area. It's the rice basket for Burma. And it's crisscrossed by a lot of rivers. It's very wet and fertile.

But the infrastructure down there is not very strong. The roads are not terribly good. The small culverts and bridges have probably been knocked out. And I think there's going to be a serious problem for aid groups trying to get relief supplies into the people who've been affected.

Help from outside organizations

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what are you hearing about the government and the aid groups and the effort to get help into Burma?

SETH MYDANS: They've been more open about the disaster than they'd like to be in this closed country. However, I think the movement of the goods and the aid groups have been slow so far. I'm not sure that it's being held up in any way by the government or just by incompetence and slow movement on their part.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it your understanding that the government is willing to let these groups in and their staff in?

SETH MYDANS: It's not clear exactly what they're going to do with this relief. They may just want the materials delivered to the hands of the military, who run everything there, and distributed by them.

But I think the relief groups are going to need to have a presence in the area in order to deliver their supplies. They also have Burmese staff, who can do a lot of the work in there. So it's not clear how many foreigners there really will be running around in there.

If there are a lot of foreigners, it will be a major change for Burma, which has been a closed society since 1962, run by the military. They've rejected various types of contact with the outside world. They pride themselves on their self-sufficiency, their ability to take care of their own.

And so this is a very difficult and even humiliating time for them to ask for aid from the outside world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Seth Mydans, you covered the tsunami in Indonesia a few years ago. How different is the -- are the aid, the willingness to let aid in? How different is it today in Burma from what you saw then?

SETH MYDANS: There was some similarity in Aceh, the hardest hit part of Indonesia, where there was a civil war going on at the time. And access to foreigners was restricted there, as well.

But once they opened up, everything was different. And, in fact, the recovery efforts there and the trauma of the tsunami contributed to the signing of a peace agreement and the ending of that civil war.

So who knows what may be the results of this major event in Burma, on a political situation that has been stagnant for decades, in fact?

In Aceh, the destruction was much, much broader than in Burma, with vast numbers of people killed and an entire portion of the capital city, Banda Aceh, wiped off the map. So we're talking about a much larger cataclysm during the tsunami than now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Seth Mydans with the New York Times, talking to us from Bangkok, thank you very much.

SETH MYDANS: Thank you.