After 12 days! Aid workers are allowed to enter Myanmar disaster zone

After 12 days!

Aid workers are allowed

to enter Myanmar disaster zone

YAHOO!  NEWS

YANGON, Myanmar – The first international aid official allowed into the cyclone-devastated Irrawaddy delta by Myanmar‘s military leaders described towns rendered unrecognizable, thousands of survivors without shelter in heavy rains and local volunteers saving lives

Bad weather has contributed to the suffering of survivors and hampered rescue efforts since the May 3 storm, and the Joint Typhoon Warning center said Wednesday another cyclone was forming in the region.

Amanda Pitt, a spokeswoman for the United Nations humanitarian relief program, couldn’t say where the landfall would be or when it would become a full-fledged cyclone. But she said the chances of another cyclone were good.

Soldiers have barred foreign aid workers from reaching survivors in the areas hardest hit by Cyclone Nargis, but gave access to an International Red Cross representative who returned to Yangon on Tuesday.

“People who have come here having lost their homes in rural areas have volunteered to work as first aiders. They are humanitarian heroes,” said Bridget Gardner, the agency’s country head.

The ruling junta has been blasted by aid agencies for refusing to allow most foreign experts into the delta and not responding adequately to what they say is a spiraling crisis.

Relief workers also reported some storm survivors were being given spoiled or poor-quality food rather than nutrition-rich biscuits sent by international donors, adding to fears that the ruling military junta in the Southeast Asian country could be misappropriating assistance.

U.N. officials warned that the threat was escalating for the 2 million people facing disease and hunger in low-lying areas battered by the storm unless relief efforts increased dramatically.

Eleven days after the tempest, reaching the worst-affected areas was getting more and more difficult.

Checkpoints manned by armed police were set up Tuesday on roads leading to the Irrawaddy River delta and all international aid workers and journalists were turned back by officers who took down their names and passport numbers. Drivers were interrogated.

“No foreigners allowed,” one policeman said after waving a car back.

However, Gardner, the Red Cross expert, and her assessment team were able to visit five locations in the Irrawaddy delta. In one of them, 10,000 people are living without shelter as rain continued to tumble from the sky.

“The town of Labutta is unrecognizable. I have been here before and now with the extent of the damage and the crowds of displaced people, it’s a different place,” Gardner was quoted as saying in a statement by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

In Labutta and elsewhere she said volunteers were giving medical aid to hundreds of people a day even though “they have no homes to go back to when they finish.”

Supplies piled up at Yangon‘s main airport, which does not have equipment to lift cargo off big Boeing 747s. It took 200 Burmese volunteers to unload by hand a plane carrying more than 60 tons of relief supplies, including school tents, said Dubai Cares, a United Arab Emirates aid group.

A report from a Tuesday meeting of the U.N. center overseeing logistics said the airport was a bottleneck in the aid effort. “Discharging operations at Yangon airport are hampered by limitations of handling equipment, fuel availability and worsening weather conditions,” it said.

The report said Britain’s Department for International Development had offered to send in machinery for unloading jumbo jets and other aircraft.

The military, which has ruled with since 1962, has taken control of most supplies sent by other countries, including the United States, which began its third day of aid delivery Wednesday, with one of five scheduled flights taking off from Thailand to Yangon.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej was also to fly into Yangon to try to persuade the regime to grant visas to international disaster experts. On Tuesday night, King Bhumibol Adulyadej urged Thais to help their neighbor, and without mentioning Myanmar by name warned that hardship would prevail if a country does not accept offered assistance.

With rain falling on Yangon on Tuesday and downpours predicted later this week, aid officials also said there was not enough warehouse space to protect the supplies beginning to flow in after the regime agreed to accept foreign help.

Even the quicker pace is not enough, U.N. officials warned.

“We fear a second catastrophe (in Myanmar) unless we’re able to put in place quickly a maximum of aid and a major logistical effort comparable with the response to the (2004) tsunami,” said Elisabeth Byrs of the U.N. Office for Humanitarian Affairs.

The tsunami killed more than 230,000 people in a dozen nations around the Indian Ocean, prompting the largest relief operation ever known. Tens of thousands of aid workers poured into devastated areas and the world community donated billions of dollars.

Myanmar’s state television said the number of confirmed deaths from Cyclone Nargis had risen by 2,335, to 34,273, and the number of missing stood at 27,838. The United Nations estimates the actual death toll from the storm could be between 62,000 and 100,000.

Some victims and aid workers said that in many cases spoiled or poor-quality food was being given to survivors.

A longtime foreign resident of Yangon told The Associated Press that angry government officials were complaining that high-energy biscuits rushed in on the World Food Program’s first flights were sent to a military warehouse.

Those supplies were exchanged for what the officials described as “tasteless and low-quality” biscuits produced by the Industry Ministry to be handed out to cyclone victims, the resident said, speaking on condition of anonymity because identifying himself could jeopardize his safety.

A spokesman for the military regime would not comment.

U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said that while Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had expressed concern about food aid being diverted to non-cyclone victims, so far there was no evidence that was happening.

“It is a fact that a very small percentage of victims so far have received the aid, but from yesterday until today … the situation has improved in terms of the delivery,” she told reporters in New York.

Speaking at the U.N. in New York, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said the U.S. is concerned that the aid reaches the neediest.

“We want to make sure that aid goes to the people that are intended to be the recipients, that they’re not diverted for other uses, and therefore we want more people there to be able to distribute the aid,” he said.

CARE Australia’s country director in Myanmar, Brian Agland, reported problems with some rice going to survivors.

He said members of his local staff brought back samples of rotting rice that was being distributed in the Irrawaddy delta.

“I have a small sample in my pocket, and it’s some of the poorest quality rice we’ve seen,” he said. “It’s affected by salt water and it’s very old.”

It was unclear whether the rice, which Agland described as dark gray in color and consisting of very small grains, had come from the government or from mills or warehouses in the delta.

“Certainly, we are concerned that (poor quality rice) is being distributed,” Agland said by telephone from Yangon. “The level of nutrition is very low.”

But the head of Myanmar’s navy, Rear Adm. Soe Thein, told Adm. Timothy J. Keating, commander of the U.S. Pacific forces, that basic needs of storm victims were being fulfilled and that “skillful humanitarian workers are not necessary,” according to state television.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Washington was pressing the junta and its foreign allies to allow in not only food and supplies but disaster relief experts.

“We are doing everything we can, because this is a humanitarian issue, not a political issue,” she said. “We want to make very clear that our only desire is to help the people of Burma.”

Survivors are jamming Buddhist monasteries or camping in the open. Drinking water has been contaminated by fecal matter, and dead bodies and animal carcasses are floating around. Food and medicine are scarce.

The international Red Cross said its delegation in Myanmar found an urgent need for more medical supplies in the Irrawaddy delta.

“During the cyclone, many people held onto trees to avoid being blown away,” Red Cross official Bridget Gardner said. “They were almost ‘sand blasted’ by dirt and saltwater; (many) lost the top layer of their skin and it’s important that these injuries are treated before infections can set in.”

___

Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Alexander G. Higgins in Geneva contributed to this report.

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