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Slow recovery for Burma's cyclone victims

Aid trickles in, but locals struggle to find food before winter's harvest.

By Anand GopalCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 1, 2008

New classroom: Children reviewed their lessons recently in a newly built school in the village of Sewa, Burma. The cyclone crushed the original school.

Anand Gopal


Mya Sein Ken, Burma

The locals say things will never be the same in Mya Sein Ken, deep in the heart of the cyclone-savaged delta in southern Burma (Myanmar). Almost 300 people vanished when cyclone Nargis struck here in May. The torrent obliterated the rice crop, and locals worry they won't have enough food to survive the fall. The storm swallowed scores of houses, leaving hundreds homeless.

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"I awake every day remembering what happened," says one villager from his temporary home, donated by aid agencies. "We are living on handouts, and I don't know when we will stand on our own again."

Everywhere across the delta, Burmese are still struggling to piece together their lives. While a modest but steady flow of aid has kept locals afloat, villagers warn that their troubles are far from over.

"Nargis destroyed our food reserves," says the villager. "We need to figure out a way to survive until December's harvest."

A recent joint assessment by the United Nations and southeast Asian governments found that more than 40 percent of households in the affected areas have less than one day's worth of food on reserve.

Locals also say that the storm destroyed more than a third of the infrastructure for fishing, a major source of income and food for residents here.

Seawater flooding has rendered 40 percent of the rice paddies in the area unusable, according to villagers. "It's too early to tell to what extent December's harvest will be affected," says an official with a prominent international nongovernmental organization based in Rangoon, who asked not to be identified.

But analysts with the World Food Program, a United Nations agency, say more than 900,000 people will need food assistance in the coming months and nearly 300,000 people will require relief until April of next year.

Infrastructure demolished

Food supplies aren't the only casualty cyclone Nargis left in its wake when it tore through Burma's delta, a labyrinth of natural canals and rice paddies that functions as the country's rice bowl. The cyclone killed an estimated 135,000 and ravaged the area's landscape and infrastructure.

The banks of the delta's many rivers are still littered with the seaweed-encrusted remains of fishing boats. Bamboo from demolished houses are scattered like matchsticks along the shore, and every few miles a mangled wharf juts out into the water. Many of the smaller roads are pocked with craters, making them impassable and forcing locals to rely entirely on waterborne transport.

The few palm trees still standing along the denuded coastlines bow to the north, a reminder of the fury that came from the southern sea in May.

But the people here don't need many reminders. "I still can't sleep through the night," says Khim Myat Thu, a young schoolgirl. When the winds came, Khim scaled the nearest coconut tree while her parents raced to find a boat. She watched from the treetop as the waters carried away her mother and then her father.

How to help

Church World Service
P.O. Box 968
Elkhart, IN, 46515
Habitat for Humanity
121 Habitat Street
Americus, GA 31709
Mercy Corps
Department W
P.O. Box 2669
Portland, OR 97208
Partners Relief and Development
P.O. Box 27220
Albuquerque, NM 87125-7220
(505) 248-9842
Save the Children
54 Wilton Road
Westport, CT 06880
United States Fund for UNICEF
125 Maiden Lane
New York, NY 10038
World Vision
P.O. Box 9716, Dept. W
Federal Way, WA 98063-9716
Worldwide Impact Now
Attn: Burma Cyclone Relief Fund
30802 Coast Hwy, SPC F20
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
(913) 240-1627
Compiled by Leigh Montgomery