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May 15th, 2008
11:09 AM ET

Cyclone Nargis and my new 'day job' in Myanmar

Editor's note: Save the Children is the leading independent organization creating lasting change for children in need in the United States and around the world. Scott McGill works for the organization and is currently helping with aid for the victims of Myanmar. He shares his experiences here:

Children help out clearing debris from under the monastery May 10, 2008 in the village of Kyaun Da Min a few hours south of Pyapon, Myanmar.

Children help out clearing debris from under the monastery May 10, 2008 in the village of Kyaun Da Min a few hours south of Pyapon, Myanmar.

Scott McGill
Save the Children.org
Asia Regional HIV/AIDS Advisor

Life is trying to return to normal here in Yangon. Although petrol lines still meander down the street and drivers stand around waiting them out (chatting and puffing on green cheroots), the rotting debris of fallen leaves and branches and other evidence of the damage inflicted on the town is slowly swept up and trucked off.

The Yangon streets — once dominated by canopies of leafy, gnarled elderly mango trees — have been transformed permanently. It is almost disorienting to suddenly turn a corner and see buildings once hidden suddenly stripped of all greenery. We are still nervously dodging fallen or dangling power cables propped up by hastily fashioned bamboo struts, hoping that everything is tied up and somehow restrung before someone does, in fact, turn the power on. Generators chug and hum across the city. Somehow, we still seem to be able to get a continuous supply of diesel (however, prices remain beyond the reach of most people who club together to pay $15 for a generator per the hour to pump water into their apartment block tanks).

We contributed $20 today as our share on our street to re-erect power poles and reconnect the spaghetti mess of snapped and tangled cables. Our house guard and his friends climbed up a ladder and reconnected our telephone line and, for a few days, we had crystal clear, uninterrupted international calls accessed on the first dialing, but this has frustratingly gone for some reason.

It does not seem that it has been just over a week since we were wading through waist-high water from our house to the next-door plot of land to check on a family of five living in a one-room cabin where, though raised off the ground, water was beginning to lap around the wooden door. Such was the inundation from a relentless seven hours of rains accompanying Cyclone Nargis.

We helped them wade back to the house to get some shelter, dry out and eat some hot food. We were the lucky house on our street: Despite a flayed and flooded garden and the odd toppled tree, our roof remained intact and our generator at the time it hit was fully stocked with diesel. We spent Saturday as the storm subsided setting up the laptop with Disney DVDs for kids next door and a fried rice and hot tea, “soup kitchen” feeding our neighbors who, in turn, helped us move the fallen trees so that we could get some access in and out of the house while mopping up water with as many towels as we could find. Somehow our satellite TV reception remained on throughout the storm apart from the odd flicker, and we have kept our eye on the steady stream of cable news reporting what developed so slowly from a breaking news item to a story of catastrophic proportions headlining day after day as the situation unfolded.

And that is kind of what I have been assigned to doing as we all in the Myanmar office assumed different roles from our “day jobs.” (I am usually the Asia Regional HIV/AIDS Adviser for Save the Children). I am trying to keep track of the media coverage from “over there” — ensuring that our daily situation updates about which affected areas we have reached, what we have managed to achieve despite all the obstacles (e.g., distribution of food and other commodities — is all fed through to our regional office in Bangkok, which in turn updates our head offices and the media. This is easier said than done with our Internet access still beyond reach, so I hop in one of our office cars down to the World Food Program office where they have not just high-speed Internet but wireless! A few other NGO staff members duck into the office and also hook on to send their own updates and reports, answer urgent demands for information as well as simply try and steal a few minutes to send quick notes to family and friends to assure them that they are OK and not to worry.

In addition I am also working with the team to try to get the stories out to the wider world — especially communicating the voices of children who are so often most overlooked but yet most affected in disasters. Our teams have been talking to children and their parents about what happened to them and their circumstances now as they conduct distributions. Initially in the Yangon townships, we heard very similar stories of extremely scared children describing their corrugated iron roof being torn off their homes, huddling together with mother and siblings as the seemingly endless rain and wind chilled them to the core and destroying what little they had, and flimsy houses eventually collapsing. However even though their homes are now overcrowded, increasingly squalid schools doubling as shelters dependent on handouts, their families are at least largely intact if not exactly hopeful about their future.

Now as our teams reach the Delta region we are reading stories and also seeing photos from our teams that reflect — if it were possible — an even darker and grimmer scenario. Children separated from their families, crowded shelters, injuries sustained from flying debris and fallen trees as well as infected wind burn from the sheer speed and slow lumbering movement of the cyclone system as it inched over the delta to slam into us in Yangon.

As one of the media contact points, the other day a young man was hurriedly pointed in my direction. He had come from the Delta region and had photos to show us. Slightly distracted by the progress report I was writing to our regional office — trying to make their deadline, describing outcomes of meetings and the latest twists and turns in our efforts to respond adequately and as quickly as possible — I took his camera and started scrolling through the images. The small digital screen did not help, but initially I thought I was looking at five children of various ages no more than 6 years old, sleeping in orderly rows. Sickened I suddenly realized that these images were in fact some of the youngest victims of Nargis. Up to that point I think I had been keeping the thought of what could have happened to those out in the Delta as the days passed far from my mind, focusing on what we were doing from our office in Yangon. But this image brought it all joltingly clear and the images stayed with me all weekend.

Other photos came in today. Finally shots of our fantastic national staff who have been quietly working in such a skilfull way with local authorities, communities. They are ingeniously hiring boats, procuring rice from local suppliers, working through the night to get to stricken isolated areas. These pictures do not show them center frame, magnanimously handing out food and other essentials to grateful recipients — rather they show them sitting in small groups discussing with the local elders, senior monks and other community leaders, engaging those most affected and most knowledgeable, asking what they need and getting them to guide our efforts as to what is required, in what quantities and where. Planning, coordinating, and by no means undermining their authority, experience and leadership, but working together. And with that I need to head home and eat before the generator is retired for the night.

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Filed under: Aid workers • Cyclone • Myanmar
soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Hindowa

    Thank you for pointing out that in Save the Children it is the Myanmar staff bringing life-saving aid and comfort to their fellow citizens affected by the cyclone in a manner that is respectful of cultural traditions and local knowledge. The discussions that take place do not make for very compelling photo-ops, but are the real core to effective humanitarian relief. Please extend our thanks and appreciation to your Myanmar staff.

    May 16, 2008 at 1:14 pm |
  2. Thuzar

    Thank you for your story especially because we don't get too many of first hand accounts. I hope the world notice what actually is going on in Burma and help the children in any way they can. I can't imagine the suffering they are going through and their uncertain future. But people like you give us hope. Please keep up the good work and stay safe.

    May 16, 2008 at 4:34 am |
  3. Linny

    I am so glad to hear that your staff are working with the community leaders, monks, and alas, the authorities. This I imagine would be the easier way to get things done at this point. In a given situation such as this, I am regretful that I am now a US citizen. I can't get into my own birth country as they are not issuing the visas to US passport holders. It is frustrating that my skills in language and knowledge with the culture can be used to help my people but am being held back due to my current citizenship. I am grateful to know that those who are there are doing all that they can to help using their diplomatic skills. Thank you.

    May 16, 2008 at 12:33 am |
  4. Michael Lyon Alvarez

    Very quickly... I am so happy that people are comming together to help those who were the victims in this disatster. I am thinking that bibles and mission workers, as well as child care workers and psycologists.
    It is important to reach the children in these natural disasters and tragedies. I think there needs to be a special group that caters to the children in these tragedies. I mean, really get IN there. Talk to them, be with them, cater to them and their such obvious and fragile needs in a colorful way.
    The large earthquake that just happened, needs America's help. We need to never stop influencing and sharing what we got.
    It's sad when yes, that many people are taken so quickly.
    What can I do? Goes through our heads. Another country, so so far away.

    May 15, 2008 at 6:04 pm |
  5. Nay

    I greatly appreciate for what you have done for the victims of the cyclone and wish that more aid will reach the victims still stranded in remote areas.

    May 15, 2008 at 4:14 pm |
  6. helpmyanmar

    Thanks for sharing your story. I hope people will keep Myanmar in their thoughts. This disaster will take years for people there to recover from. A people with so little has had so much taken from them, I hope people will open their hearts and give what they can.

    We have been following what Save the Children has been doing and will continue to follow and blog on their activities.

    Thanks again.

    May 15, 2008 at 3:08 pm |
  7. Cindy

    Thanks for all of the work you are doing over there to help the ones devastated by the cyclone. I hope that more aid and help can get to them soon.

    Also thanks for telling your story and getting out to the world what is going on there since they aren't letting much at all out on the sitution or how the aid is getting to the people. Hopefully more news about what is going on will continue to trickle out even though the government doesn't want it to.

    Keep up the great work!!

    May 15, 2008 at 11:23 am |

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