The tropical cyclone that slammed into Myanmar May 3 killed as many as 22,000 people and left tens of thousands missing, making the storm Southeast Asia’s deadliest natural disaster since the 2004 tsunami.
Myanmar state radio revised the death toll today and reported 41,000 people missing, according to Western news organizations. Earlier, U Ye Win, Myanmar’s ambassador to Thailand, put the death toll at 15,000 when he briefed officials in Bangkok on the scale of the disaster, Kallayana Vipattipumiprates of the Thai Foreign Ministry said by telephone.
``At least eight townships are completely or mostly destroyed,’’ said Pamela Sitko, a Bangkok-based worker with the Christian relief group World Vision who was briefed by colleagues in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
Power was knocked out in the former capital, Yangon, and drinking water was contaminated in the city of 5 million people. In the town of Bogalay, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) southwest of Yangon, ``we are getting reports that there are 10,000 dead,’’ said Debbie Stothard, a spokeswoman for the civic group Alternative Asean Network on Burma.
The U.S. yesterday offered an initial $250,000 in aid to the country, which is among the world’s least-developed, while castigating its military leadership for failing to alert citizens to the approaching cyclone.
``Although they were aware of the threat, Burma’s state-run media failed to issue a timely warning to citizens in the storm’s path,’’ First Lady Laura Bush said from the White House.
Myanmar, a nation of 47.8 million people, is regularly hit by cyclones that form in the Bay of Bengal between April and November. Tropical Cyclone Nargis struck as Myanmar, which has been ruled by the military since 1962, prepares to hold a referendum on May 10 for a new constitution before elections scheduled for 2010.
The junta vowed to press ahead with the referendum after the storm, Agence France-Presse reported, citing state media. The U.S. State Department says the referendum is an attempt by the military to retain power.
Stothard condemned the decision to hold the referendum. ``More and more people are going to die and the regime might not have much of a Burma to rule after this,’’ she said from Bangkok.
People in Burma were kept in the dark,'' Stothard said in a separate television interview with Bloomberg News and the military regime was radically unprepared to deal with such a disaster,’’ she said.
The disaster is the worst in the region since a 9.1 magnitude earthquake offshore from Aceh on Indonesia’s Sumatra island in December 2004 caused a tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean, devastating coastal communities and leaving more than 220,000 people dead or missing.
The damage is very serious,'' U.K. Ambassador to Myanmar Mark Canning said today by e-mail from Yangon. The city, formerly known as Rangoon, remains in very bad shape, but it’s the southern areas of the delta region that will have been hit hardest. They are remote and difficult to access at the best of times, so the picture will take time to build.’’
The United Nations
will do whatever it can to provide urgent humanitarian assistance,'' Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in New York. Because of the lack of communications, we are not quite sure what will be the total extent of damages and casualties.’’
U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for urgent food aid to the country.
Nearly a million people are now in need of food aid,'' Brown said to an audience of business executives in London. We will work with the whole international community to make sure that the food aid and other help that’s necessary is available to the people of Burma,’’ he said.
The 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes Myanmar, will organize aid supplies through its coordinating center, Surin Pitsuwan, the body’s secretary- general, said in Singapore today.
The Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej said today that the Thai government has prepared 30 tons of medicines and 12 tons of food to be shipped to Myanmar tomorrow. The government has also prepared emergency teams, including doctors, which can go to Myanmar to help the victims of the cyclone if they get permission from Myanmar’s government.
Singapore will contribute a $200,000 humanitarian assistance package, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wrote in a letter to General Thein Sein, prime minister of Myanmar. An e-mailed copy of the letter was sent to Bloomberg.
Nargis packed winds of 120 miles (190 kilometers) per hour when it struck the coast, sending the sea surging as much as 12 feet (3.5 meters).
The government declared a state of emergency in five low- lying provinces, mostly in the rice-growing Irrawaddy delta, where villages were flattened by winds and rain, the UN said.
Myanmar may have to import rice because of ``huge’’ damage to crops, said Chookiat Ophaswongse, the head of the Thai Rice Exporters Association.
The country would probably have exported about 400,000 metric tons of rice this year because of soaring global prices, up from normal shipments of about 100,000 tons, Chookiat said in an interview on Bloomberg Television. The storm will definitely ``jeopardize’’ exports and it is possible Myanmar will have to import some rice, he said.
State radio warned people to drink boiled water and be wary of mosquitoes and snakes, AFP said.
`Huge Water Shortage’
Houses in Yangon use electricity to pump water, and with power supplies cut by the storm there will be a ``huge water shortage,’’ Jyri Rantanen, acting head of disaster management in the Asia Pacific for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said by telephone from Kuala Lumpur.
A UN disaster-assessment team was dispatched to Bangkok, and the world body is prepared to provide a grant from the $500 million Central Emergency Response Fund, created to rush aid to nations in need, spokesman Farhan Haq said.
The UN Children’s Fund and its Development Program, which have offices in Myanmar, stockpiled food, water and medicine before the storm. They will distribute water-purification tablets, plastic sheeting, food and cooking sets in Yangon and the delta region.
Flooding, blocked roads and disrupted communications are hampering efforts to assess the extent of the damage, according to the world body.
The junta has requested international assistance and UN officials are engaged in talks with Myanmar authorities on how best to help, the UN news agency IRIN cited Richard Horsey of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs as saying.