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Aid trickles in to flooded Myanmar

Frustration grows over delays by the military regime.

May 08, 2008|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — 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.

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