Frustration mounted Wednesday as humanitarian groups waited for Myanmar’s government to grant visas and allow more relief flights into the country, steps deemed essential to easing the plight of as many as 1 million left homeless by a cyclone last weekend.
By day’s end, as gasoline lines grew and darkness enveloped a battered Yangon, Myanmar’s most populous city, a trickle of aid was starting to flow. Television images showed Myanmar soldiers unloading the first foreign aid plane allowed into the country, a Thai C-130 military cargo jet filled with food, bottled water and medical supplies.
After daylight broke today, most shops in central Yangon appeared to be closed and few cars were on the street. There was no visible army presence and most of those working to clear debris were civilians, armed with machetes, which they used to hack branches off downed trees. Some of the debris was thrown into trucks.
The official death count remained about 22,000 people, with 41,000 missing and 1,400 injured. Some aid and exile groups, echoed by Shari Villarosa, the U.S. Embassy’s top diplomat in Yangon, said the death toll may ultimately exceed 70,000 and could rise as high as 100,000.
From the outskirts of Yangon looking south, the Irrawaddy River delta resembled a huge lake. At night, the city was shrouded in darkness with the exception of a few hotels and apartment blocks with generators or the occasional flicker of candles from windows.
The six-lane road between the airport and the city had been cleared of debris, but tree branches were piled as high as 8 feet on the shoulder.
Cars lined up for blocks to get gasoline, many with their engines turned off, suggesting that their owners were holding a spot overnight.
The damage in Yangon appeared to be mainly fallen trees, damaged roofs and broken windows. Twisted metal pillars remained from billboards that had blown over. Some roofs had new patches of corrugated metal. Outside a government office, four or five trucks were seen taking on water from a firetruck for distribution to residents.
United Nations teams have described bodies floating in standing water, and CNN showed bloated carcasses of water buffalo along the roadside.
U.N. agencies said their first priority would be to complete a basic assessment of the damage, perhaps today, so aid groups will know where and how to deploy their resources. Putting this information together has taken longer than expected, in part because of washed-out roads and the inaccessibility of the hardest-hit areas in the Irrawaddy delta from Yangon, also known as Rangoon.
“Since there are no good phones, we’ve had to wait for people to physically come back to Yangon,” said Shantha Bloemen, a spokeswoman for UNICEF based in Thailand. “And some areas we just haven’t been able to reach, although we’ve tried.”
Even before the first aid flight touched down, there was concern that Yangon’s airport would soon be overwhelmed. In previous crises caused by natural disasters, including the 2004 Asian tsunami, a logistics hub was set up just outside the affected area. Experts say they are considering Bangkok, Thailand, as a staging area to store the millions of dollars’ worth of expected aid before it is distributed.
The U.N. World Food Program said late Wednesday that it had received authorization to fly three cargo flights in today from the United Arab Emirates and Bangladesh bearing 45 tons of high-energy biscuits and other emergency supplies, with another U.N. agency flight approved soon thereafter. The International Red Cross has also been cleared to bring in a load of 4,000 famine kits.
Most organizations said they were still waiting for visas for key staff members. With domestic and foreign criticism growing, Myanmar appointed a special minister Wednesday to handle visas.
“We applied for seven visas today for badly needed international emergency experts,” said Paul Risley, the World Food Program’s Thailand-based regional spokesman. “We were not successful.”
Organizations that have been able to start working most quickly are those that already had a presence in Myanmar, also known as Burma. But some said their people and material were far from the regions where help is needed.
UNICEF, with 130 full-time staffers in Myanmar, transferred emergency supplies from Yangon to high-risk areas of the country before the cyclone season, but is now scrambling to bring them back to help the city’s 6.5 million badly hit residents.
Save the Children, which has 500 staff members in Myanmar, said it has given out food, tarps, kitchen equipment and rehydration kits to thousands of people around Yangon that it had stored in the country or bought locally.
Based on the group’s experience with the 2004 tsunami, it believes that about 40% of the victims may be children and many may be separated from their parents, said Kathryn Rawe, a spokeswoman for the civic group in Thailand.
World Vision, which has 580 full-time staffers in Myanmar, said it has been distributing water, rice and blankets in the area around Yangon but needs supplies that it has stored in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, if it is going to help the worst-hit rural areas.
“Everyone is just waiting for the OK,” said Pamela Sitko, with the group’s emergency response team.
Aid groups said privately that they remained frustrated by how slowly the Myanmar government was moving and how fearful it seemed to be of opening up its borders. Among the issues groups say they are negotiating before serious work can begin are expediting customs clearance, reducing red tape, gaining the freedom to monitor aid distribution so it doesn’t fall prey to corrupt officials and getting clearance to work without an overbearing military presence.
John Holmes, the U.N.'s humanitarian chief, said the world body had been negotiating “intensely” over visas and access, but that international aid workers may ultimately have to be escorted by a Myanmar attendant.
Satellite photos taken before and after the storm show huge swaths of blue in the Irrawaddy River delta that once were green fields, a vivid illustration of what the U.N. says is nearly 2,000 square miles still underwater. The inundation raises fear of disease as well as drownings.
“From the tsunami, we saw that dead bodies aren’t necessarily dangerous,” said the UNICEF’s Bloemen. “But the issue of safe water, contaminated wells, especially in the area of the big wave, are very serious.”
The United States has pledged to provide naval help.
“We’re waiting for the green light,” Adm. Timothy J. Keating, commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific, told CNN. “We’re ready to go.”
The amphibious assault ship Essex, sailing in the Gulf of Thailand, has sent helicopters to northern Thailand. Two other U.S. vessels and several C-130 cargo jets are in the area in the event Myanmar accepts their help.
In a region where saving face is important, Myanmar’s government may balk at accepting U.S. help. First Lady Laura Bush has repeatedly called the government “inept,” while Villarosa on Wednesday termed it “paranoid.”
The U.N. reported that about 30 nations have pledged more than $30 million in aid. The U.S. has pledged $3 million, up from its original offer of $250,000, matching the European Union’s commitment. Britain has pledged $9.8 million.
Also waiting to get into the country are those focused on long-term problems. Peter Witton, Thailand-based director of Habitat for Humanity, said his group probably wouldn’t start to address the question of building permanent housing for several weeks.
Even so, he said, its representatives need to meet with the government soon on how to handle landownership issues; whether to rebuild using traditional materials such as wood and thatch, some of which didn’t stand up well to the storm; and how welcoming Myanmar will be to long-term help.
Myanmar’s neighbors have responded quickly. In addition to the Thai jet, one Chinese and two Indian aid planes arrived Wednesday, with two from Indonesia expected today. Beijing has pledged $1 million, half in tents, bedding, biscuits and other supplies. Even as governments around the world criticize Myanmar’s lumbering response, China, one of the military regime’s strongest allies, has taken a noticeably softer line.
“As far as Myanmar goes, China and the United States don’t see eye to eye,” said Su Hao, an Asia-Pacific specialist at the China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing. “The U.S. wants to change their system, meddle in their internal affairs. China concentrates on helping them economically.”
That doesn’t mean Myanmar will allow Chinese soldiers or police to help either, or even accept their advice, some said.
“It’s absolutely impossible [that Chinese] troops will be allowed in because Myanmar is very sensitive about its sovereignty and control,” said Zhu Zhenming, vice president with the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences in southwestern China. “Even during the 1950s and 1960s when relations were even better, Myanmar never let our military help when there were earthquakes and floods.”
A Times staff writer in Yangon and staff writers Paul Richter and James Gerstenzang in Washington and Maggie Farley at the U.N., along with Gao Jing in The Times’ Beijing Bureau, contributed to this report.
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How to help
These are some of the aid agencies accepting contributions for assistance to those affected by the cyclone in Myanmar:
Myanmar Cyclone Fund
12501 Old Columbia Pike,
Silver Spring, MD 20904
(800) 424-ADRA Ext. 2372
1816 12th St. NW,
Washington, DC 20009
International Rescue Committee
(Note on checks: Myanmar)
P.O. Box 96651
Washington, DC 20090
P.O. Box 9716,
Federal Way, WA 98063