The United States was launching its first relief airlift to cyclone-hit Burma today after prolonged negotiations with the country’s military rulers.
In what was seen as a huge concession by the junta, the US finally got the go-ahead to send a C-130 cargo plane packed with supplies to Yangon with two more air shipments scheduled to land tomorrow.
The death toll from Cyclone Nargis jumped to nearly 29,000 yesterday amid warnings that the military junta, who have ruled the isolated nation with an iron fist for nearly four decades, were creating a “humanitarian catastrophe of genuinely epic proportions”.
The junta has been sharply criticised for its handling of the May 3 disaster, from failing to provide adequate warnings about the pending storm to responding slowly to offers of help.
Though international assistance has started trickling in, the few foreign relief workers who have been allowed entry into Burma have been restricted to the largest city of Yangon. Only a handful have succeeded in getting past checkpoints into the worst-affected areas.
Burma’s military rulers are especially suspicious of Washington, which has long been one of the junta’s biggest critics, pointing to human rights abuses and its failure to hand over power to a democratically elected government.
“We hope that this is the beginning of a long line of assistance from the United States,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
“They’re going to need our help for a long time.”
Highlighting the many challenges ahead, however, a Red Cross boat carrying rice, drinking water and other goods for more than 1,000 people sank yesterday near Bogalay town. All four aid workers on board were safe.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies could not say how much of the cargo has been lost, but it said the food supplies were contaminated by river water.
“Apart from the delay in getting aid to people we may now have to re-evaluate how we transport that aid,” said Michael Annear, the IFRC’s disaster manager in Yangon, who described the sinking as “a big blow”.
Other aid was increasingly getting through, the group said, but on “nowhere near the scale required”.
Heavy showers were forecast for the coming week, further complicating delivery of aid that is still barely reaching victims in the Irrawaddy delta, which was pounded by 120mph winds and 12ft high storm surges from the sea.
The UN said about two million people were severely affected by the cyclone.
Charity groups fear the death toll could rise to 1.5 million if people do not get clean water and sanitation soon.
In hard hit Laputta, hundreds of survivors crowded the floor of a monastery’s open-air hall, the sound of hungry children wailing. Many people tried to sleep sitting up because of lack of space.
Pain Na Kon, a tiny nearby village of just 300, was completely obliterated.
The only 12 known survivors – including six-year-old Mien Mien, who lost both her parents – huddled together in a tent set up in a rice field, sharing a small portion of biscuits and watery soup handed out at a local monastery.
“We are family now,” said U Nyo, a man in his 30s. “We are from the same place. We are together.”
Even Yangon, further inland, was crowded with refugees and its own homeless from the storm.
“People are sleeping in the open or in one of thousands of flimsy shelters dotted around the city,” a Red Cross worker said.
“I saw one group perched on a piece of land straddling a field of fetid water among goats, pigs, buffalos and dogs.”
Burma’s state television said the death toll from Cyclone Nargis had gone up by about 5,000 to 28,458 – with another 33,416 missing – though some experts said it could be 15 times that if people do not get clean water and sanitation soon.