Relief organizations responding to Cyclone Giri, which pounded western Myanmar on Friday, are finding homes and schools swept away and a need for emergency food and water in the saltwater soaked islands.
“The winds that hit these islands were over 200 km an hour and in many of these places there was a tidal surge of about 10 feet,” said Andrew Kirkwood, Save the Children’s country director in Myanmar. “Fishing boats have been sunk and paddy fields have been inundated with sea water. Houses have either been blown or washed away. Over 300 schools have been destroyed. It’s left a huge wave of destruction behind.”
The official death toll in the hardest hit townships of Kyaukpyu, Myebon and Pauktaw was 45, though 200,000 are in need of emergency food supplies, such as rice and beans, and probably will be for the next three to six months, he said.
By comparison, the country’s last major cyclone, Nargis, which struck the Irrawaddy Delta in May 2008, killed an estimated 130,000 people.
Children take shelter in a monastery.
There were major differences between the two cyclones, including an early-warning system for Giri. Radio and television announcements — and in some cases people walking around with megaphones — alerted residents to the approaching storm.
In addition, while the intensity of both storms was similar, the delta where Cyclone Nargis hit is very flat, whereas Giri’s path was over hilly terrain, giving people a chance to get to higher ground, Kirkwood said.
Another difference was in the response of Myanmar’s government, which was criticized in 2008 for being too slow to let international aid workers into the country.
Kirkwood said the government was much better prepared this time, and his staff received good help from local authorities. They also didn’t need to fly in international staff or relief shipments as they after Nargis, because the number of people affected is smaller and they can buy relief supplies locally, he said.
After Nargis, people in Myanmar have a much greater awareness of safer building techniques, Kirkwood continued. “There are very simple things that people can do to strengthen public buildings and homes to make them more cyclone-resistant, including improved bracing and foundations.”
However, there’s still very little one can do against a Category 4 cyclone and the accompanying tidal surge, he added. People will need to rebuild their livelihoods, including replacing fishing boats and farming tool.
Destroyed cyclone shelter. All photos courtesy of Save the Children
In one community the Save the Children team visited, a cyclone shelter built in 1962 had its roof ripped off by Giri. “We interviewed one man, 84 years old, who said this is the fifth major cyclone that he can remember but this is much stronger than anything that he has seen in his lifetime,” Kirkwood said.