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Myanmar Cyclone Aid Caught in Red Tape

Military junta limiting ability of relief groups to deliver and distribute food, medicine, shelter.

On Friday, May 2, Cyclone Nargis and the 12-foot-high storm surge that followed flooded coastal Myanmar (Burma), leaving up to 100,000 dead and 1 million or more without shelter. Still recovering from the 2004 Christmas tsunami, the military junta in Myanmar was ill equipped to feed, shelter, and care for the storm's countless victims.

But as of May 9, the Myanmar government had refused to allow relief workers to enter the country to distribute aid. Such emergency food and medical aid is at risk of falling into the wrong hands or being resold on the black market. The government, according to reliable reports, had confiscated planes full of emergency rations from the U.N. World Food Program.

As of late Friday night local time, U.N. officials and Myanmar government leaders made progress in negotiations, and two flights of food were expected to arrive on Saturday. Myanmar has 51 million residents, many of whom live on less than $2 per day, the global poverty line.

Relief teams from major Christian organizations and other international agencies are in nearby Bangkok, Thailand, awaiting the government's approval of visas.

From Bangkok, Laura Blank, an emergency communications officer for World Vision, spoke on Friday, May 9, to Stan Guthrie, CT managing editor of special projects.

What is World Vision currently trying to do to help the situation?

As soon as the storm ended, we were able to begin distributing rice, clean water, fuel, rebuilding supplies, and blankets—the basic things that we wanted to get to people as soon as we could. Because we'd been there for so long, we were able to purchase goods locally and in bulk, and try to start some of the relief efforts on a very small scale.

How many people do you have in country right now?

We have close to 600 staff in country. We're hearing from our staff that close to 2 million people have been affected in one way or another by the storm.

This morning one of our staffers shared stories that she's heard from the field of little children being washed away and parents having to watch their children die in front of their eyes, or of children having to see a family member pass away. It's hard to imagine what that does to a little child who may become an orphan. So what we really want to do, and what our staff are doing, is to try to identify those children and make sure that they don't get lost, that they're cared for and have food and have someone who can love them and help them walk through this.

We've heard much about bottlenecks and other problems. What's been World Vision's experience?

We've been able to be in the country for 40 years now, and certainly the government asking for international aid as soon as the storm was over was an encouraging sign.

Right now what we're trying to do is to continue encouraging an expansion of the relief process, because every day that we lose is another day people aren't getting the aid they need.

There's an incredible lack of clean water. Particularly in the delta, where the country was hit the hardest, there really is no clean water to speak of, and what's replaced it is pools of stagnant water, water with bodies and animal corpses floating in it that's incredibly contaminated.

What people are doing without the option of clean water is just taking a risk and drinking that, and that leads to some high public health risks, too, because you've got people, hundreds of thousands of people, who now have no homes.

What we're seeing is hundreds of thousands of people in these internally displaced people camps, or IDP camps. They're overcrowded, too. So when one person gets sick, it beomes a breeding ground for disease.

What kind of supplies and food and water are you trying to get in?

We're trying to work with the staff that we have to do the basic response. What we're hoping to do then is to bring in our professionals who have done disaster relief and humanitarian aid work for years. Many of those colleagues have applied for visas and are now waiting. We also have six warehouses around the world that are stocked particularly for natural disasters. They were ready and stocked for the tsunami in 2004 and for the earthquake in Pakistan, and right now we have a C-130 cargo plane that can carry about 40 tons of goods. It's based in Dubai, and it's getting loaded up and ready to go.

We will also have water-purification equipment. Each piece of equipment can clean enough water for thousands of people at a time. So having that in country will be a tremendous resource because it will give us quick access to a lot of clean water for a lot of people.

You obviously have to get the government's approval to get a plane like that into their territory. How is that going?

World Vision, other NGOs, and the U.N. have all been in continuous dialogue with the government, and we are hoping that the situation is resolved as quickly as possible, because what we're talking about here is a humanitarian crisis. People are wandering around looking for aid.

How many people do you think World Vision can realistically help?

Based on early estimates (we're still getting the final assessment from our team), we're looking at about $3 million that would help serve close to a quarter of a million people over the next 30 days. So that would be a full-scale humanitarian aid effort in the short term to try to begin taking care of immediate needs. But speaking long term, World Vision has no plans to leave the country. We hope to continue to work in country, as we have for four decades, to help them rebuild after this terrible storm.

How are local Christians faring with all this?

Many of the staff that we work with are Christians. One woman who is a colleague said she couldn't stop crying. She was walking around and just crying and felt so broken for these people. World Vision founder Bob Pierce said, "Let my heart be broken for the things that break the heart of God." And I think she was really feeling that.

We had World Vision Australia president Tim Costello here. He's actually been in Myanmar for close to 48 hours now. He led devotions for the staff this morning and really just encouraged them. It's been incredibly stressful. They're working long hours. They're not sleeping well.

Many of our staff have family and friends who are missing or who have passed away from the storm. And Tim really encouraged them to keep going and to persevere. And it was so neat to hear my colleagues say, "We're going to do that. We love our country. We love our community, and we want to help them. And we know that we need to be here for this time to help these people."

The tenacity and perseverance and dedication of the staff that I've talked to over the past few days are inspiring.

What is at stake over the next several days? I've heard many press reports saying that if the government doesn't expedite the relief efforts with international agencies such as yours, many more people are going to die.

We are in a crunch for time. Every day that goes by is another day we aren't able to provide the relief the Burmese people need. We're not talking about a static situation. It's constantly changing and developing as additional people are put at risk for disease, water contamination, and hydration. All of that can start to snowball.

Who is paying for the aid that you're providing? It's an awful lot of money that needs to be raised in a very short time.

For the $3 million goal, we put out a public invitation for individuals to donate as they feel led. Then we began applying for government grants.

Do you have a sense of whether people are donating at a certain level? Are they being pretty generous? Or are you seeing some donor fatigue?

I just saw something from one of my colleagues that said the average gift was about $130, but the fundraising pace has begun to pick up. So it's everyday people who see humanity halfway around the world and they want to do something to help.

Can you help our readers understand why this cyclone had such a devastating impact on the country?

I've heard a couple of thoughts on that, one of them being that when the tsunami hit in 2004, Myanmar was close enough that it wiped out some of the mangroves, trees, and vegetation right along the coastline. So what was wiped out hasn't had a chance to grow back. It's only been a few years. So when this storm came along it went straight through. There was essentially nothing to block the storm. They don't have strong roadways or alert systems or houses that can withstand these kind of natural pressures. That's always another factor when looking at why these things happen.

What can Christianity Today's readers do to help right now?

I think the most important thing we can ask first is for prayer. We are asking for prayer for our staff in Myanmar. Staff there are working around the clock tirelessly. Many of them have lost friends and family.

We're also praying for a quick resolution to the situation, that the NGOs are ready and willing to go in and start distributing aid as quickly as possible. But beyond that we're also looking for financial gifts. If readers feel led to do that, they can go to our website. And you'll see everything on the homepage. It will tell you more about our relief work and how to donate.

Is there anything else you think our readers need to know?

One of the things that makes World Vision unique as an NGO is that we are "child-centric." We were founded with the biblical call to work with women and children—to protect them and to be an advocate for them. And we're very concerned about the children that we have.

We have about 10,000 children in the center of the destruction in the five regions that have been marked as the hardest hit, and we have 42,000 children total in Myanmar. We're concerned for them because in a natural disaster, children in particular are very vulnerable to disease. They're vulnerable to dehydration. And they're also vulnerable to the emotional stress and the toll that takes when a little child has to go through a situation like this.

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