Saturday, May 10, 2008

A Cyclone Diary

Sanchaung Township. May 2-3I first heard that a cyclone was approaching Burma on the 1 p.m. news on May 2. The next day, the cyclone’s approach was reported in the state-published newspapers, but the item was buried amid other news. The constitutional referendum planned for May 10 dominated the headlines. Later I heard that many people had overlooked the news item, believing it was of little importance.

Flooded villages are seen in this aerial view near an airport in Rangoon on May 5. (Photo: Reuters)At about 2 p.m. On May 3, a friend from Bassein, capital of Irrawaddy Division, called me with the news that the cyclone had hit Haing Gyi island in the Irrawaddy delta. Some villages near Chaung Thar beach had reportedly disappeared. I tried to call Chaung Thar to confirm the news but I couldn't get through.Journalists from some Rangoon publications set out that day to try and reach Bassein, but I later heard that they hadn’t been able to get there.

Offices and schools in Rangoon closed early, and worried groups of residents gathered at bus stops.Myanmar TV carried storm warnings on its 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. newscasts, but few viewers took the news seriously—not much credence is given to anything carried by the state media.It rained later that night, and the wind picked up, growing stronger all the time. At 2 a.m. On May 3, the howling wind woke people up and frightened the children. At around 4 a.m. the residents of one eight-story apartment block left their homes and sought shelter on the ground floor. Zinc roofing was being ripped off the building and the rain was penetrating homes.

May 3

Residents fill water into tanks after water shortage in Rangoon. (Photo:Reuters)In her dilapidated home in Rangoon’s Wartayar district, Ma Oo, a food vendor, described how she recited Than Buddhe rhymes to her eight year-old son and five year-old daughter to comfort them. She heard cries of help and ran outside, taking the children—just in time to see their home collapse before their eyes. A neighbor, Ma Kyin Ngwe, called them over to her own ruined home, and they hugged the ground as the wind sent pots, pans and furniture flying around them.There was no escape from the fury of the storm. Wartayar is a raw, treeless place, accommodating people made homeless by a disastrous fire in Rangoon’s Hlaing Township.May 3, 11 a.m.
The wind began to slacken. In its wake it left behind a scene of devastation—fallen trees and power lines, roofless buildings, collapsed homes. Shocked residents gathered outside to assess the damage.
May 3, Noon

Cars line up for petrol at a petrol station in Rangoon on Wednesday. (Photo:AP)People began to tour the streets, looking for shops that would sell them food and other provisions. Many shops were closed, and those shopkeepers who opened their doors demanded inflated prices.Many prices had doubled virtually overnight. A duck egg now cost 200 kyat (18 US cents). Zinc roofing—now in big demand—had jumped in price from 1,200 kyat ($1) per square foot to as much as 3,000 kyat ($2.7).Neighbors helped each other. A resident of Rangoon’s Shwepyithar district said, "We had to. Anybody with sufficient rice distributed it to those in need, starting with children and the elderly.”
May 4
The demand for zinc roofing sheets and rice grew still further. Buses were back in service, but fares had risen astronomically. A 50 kyat (4 US cents) ticket now cost 2,000 kyat ($1.60). Taxi fares also jumped, keeping pace with increases in the price of fuel. Not only fuel was in short supply—clean water, too, was hard to find and cost up to 3,000 kyat ($2.40) for 20 liters.
One worker from Rangoon’s Shwepyithar district said there was no rice to be found in the suburbs. "There are a lot people who haven't eaten since yesterday,” he said. Many said they expected no help from the government. A teacher said: "There is no roof now on our building. We’ve been told that we have to repair it on our own. How can I repair it on my monthly salary? I have no money to spare. So I have to live with it as it is.”Ironically, civil servants living in poorly-constructed government housing fared worse than others as the storm ripped into their apartment blocks. “Contractors rushed the buildings up, pocketing the profits,” said one government official.Bus fares eased today, but still were 10 times last week’s level. The price of rice, however, has soared, although the government announced on May 5 that it would make rice and such commodities as palm oil and building materials available at controlled prices. Rangoon residents looked in vain, however, for the promised goods.

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