May 23rd, 2008
10:21 AM ET

A good day in Yangon, Myanmar... finally help has arrived

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/05/23/art.myanmar.aid2.jpg caption="People displaced by Cyclone Nargis by their tents in the Kyondah village, 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:

Scott McGill
Asia Regional HIV/AIDS Adviser

It was a very good day for two major reasons here in Yangon. A good day, despite it being nearly three weeks since Cyclone Nargis changed life forever for so many in this corner of Myanmar and despite the deadly secondary consequences accruing for over 2 million people as a second disaster begins to reveal itself.

The first reason is that finally help has arrived. I am not referring to the intermittent air shipments arriving on the single runway at Yangon’s Mingladon Airport over the past few days, bringing the most basic commodities for those struggling to survive in rapidly deteriorating conditions in the Irrawaddy Delta region. Although, of course, the food, tarpaulin, medical supplies, construction materials, water purifiers and, equally important, clothing arriving are almost literally manna from heaven.

Thunderstorms have continued to roll in over the Delta areas. Survivors — even where they have been fortunate enough to get hold of a piece of tarpaulin to fashion a shelter — are cold and wet. The ground is sodden, cold and damp. Too often survivors were left literally with the clothes they were running in as they frantically tried to escape to higher ground or climb a tree to somehow get above the near 25-foot storm surges and flash floods. Or to simply stand where they were, valiantly holding their children on shoulders or even above their heads for seven hours as the water lapped around adult necks and faces.

Some survivors have talked of their desperate shame in being left entirely naked by the force of the water tearing off their shirts, dresses and lungyi (a long skirt-like sarong almost universally worn by both men and women). Such public humiliation and nakedness for most Burmese would be a fate worse than death in terms of their culture norms. For children — warm, dry, adequate clothing as the country enters six months of monsoon is absolutely critical to their survival.

Over the last week, the help that finally arrived for us in our main office in Yangon has come in the shape of our expert Disaster Response Team, pulled from various parts of the world to assist those of us who have been doing the best we can with limited staff and quite limited experience — including me, climbing my own almost vertical disaster-response learning curve. These colleagues had been with us in spirit and had been supporting us by telephone and occasional e-mail contact (when the Internet sputtered back to life) – but had been frustratingly physically distanced from us as they worked to get visas. They are the experts, come to take up the reins from those of us previously unfamiliar with the mechanics and protocols of a response to a disaster of such size and scale. They have been a welcome invasion, sweeping into the office, rapidly setting up equipment, coolly making methodical assessments of the situation, setting up a makeshift but highly efficient disaster response centre. Specialists in child protection, education in emergency, nutrition, health and those staff who know exactly how to logistically get what we need in, to where it is needed and in what exact quantities. They are familiar with emergency situations and know precisely what to do.

Of course we were all extremely pleased to see them — the original team is beginning to get tired out, and the response we have been engaged in now needs to be carried out more systematically in order to massively scale up our response as well as keep it going it over the next 6, 12 and 24 months. Full recovery is clearly going to require such a sustained trajectory.

A couple of days afterwards, I took the first few hours off since Nargis hit. Simply going to the store, ducking into the barber’s chair and getting home before dark were treats I never imagined would mean so much. Ultimately many of us will be handing over our tasks to these specialist teams and going back to our original programs — knowing we did our very best and that the response is in safe hands and that even more people will be reached and given what they so urgently need.

Oh yes – I had a second reason for it being a good day. The electrical power came back to the house. Forgetting my “green” ambitions for a short while, I took great delight in flicking on as many lights as there were at hand and enjoying as hot and as long a shower as I could manage. Somehow it felt a lot like something close to normal had returned, and I felt a little lighter. And a lot cleaner too.

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Filed under: Aid to Myanmar • Aid workers • Cyclone • Myanmar • Severe Weather
soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. Janna

    Mr. McGill, Thank you so much for putting your compassion & passion where it is most needed. We are relieved to hear of any progress. I am wondering however, how much allowance the Disater Response Team is being given by the Junta. Are the experts being allowed to allocate relief to the areas most in need? or is the govt still pulling the strings & helping only those who THEY deem to be deserving?

    May 24, 2008 at 9:06 pm |
  2. Julie San Diego, CA

    Scott, thanks for your hard work and continued attention to this disaster.

    It's fairly common knowledge that General Than Shwe, Myanmar's top leader and the man largely responsible for the aid holdup, is a superstitious, paranoid, possibly mentally ill dictator who makes Venezuela's Hugo Chavez look pleasant and "normal" by comparison.

    Every morning Than Shwe meets with his advisors – fortunetellers and astrologers.

    Our diplomats have mistakenly tried to rationalize with an irrational man. You talk rationally to the rational – that approach works. When you're dealing with someone who isn't living in the real world, you have to start talking a little crazy.

    If someone can get inside this guy's head and make him see the payoff for giving aid workers unfettered access into the country, countless lives that hang in the balance could potentially be saved.

    Where's Miss Cleo when you need her? I've already written the script: "It is written in the stars that a military leader will be assassinated unless he allows relief workers to enter his country."

    You have to talk crazy to the crazy. At this point, it's worth a try.

    May 23, 2008 at 11:02 pm |
  3. Annie Kate

    Its hard to understand why the Burmese government would wait so long to let aid workers in especially with the number of dead and what has to be a huge number of homeless now . At least now that aid workers are coming in the people will get the help they have so desperately needed from the beginning.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    May 23, 2008 at 8:25 pm |
  4. Sharon from Indy

    Let's put the numbers in peril after Cyclone (Hurricane) Nargis in Myanmar compared to Hurricane Katrina.

    Over 138,000 dead and missing ( and counting) have been estimated to have perished due to Cyclone Nargis; Over 3,000 lost their lives on the Gulf Coast including New Orleans.

    I realize there are millions more living in Myanmar than the Gulf Coast but the enormous for need for the millions displaced and homeless needs to be seen as relief emergency.

    May 23, 2008 at 5:25 pm |
  5. Sharon

    Thank God

    Those poor people suffered far to long.

    May 23, 2008 at 3:44 pm |
  6. Jan from Wood Dale IL

    I think your post and the announcement made by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon need to be viewed with cautious optimism. The photo of the Kyondah Relief Camp used in your post has become somewhat of a showcase for the junta. While in Myanmar, Ban only visited the Kyondah Relief Camp and the town of Mawlamyinegyrin. He did not see the devastation in the townships of Labutta and Bogalay.

    Since the junta is still restricting access to those regions, many of those people who have survived the cyclone are still without food, shelter, or clothing. The monks are doing the best they can in distributing aid to those survivors, but both aid organizations and private donaters have had to pay the guards along the route in order to get their supplies through.

    Also, the military junta is now requesting somewhere in the area of $13 billion USD for reconstruction efforts. Considering it been nearly 3 weeks since the storm, and the military leaders have not even made a decent effort to help their own people survive, I would hope the UN and the international community would keep a very tight control on any reconstruction money they release.

    May 23, 2008 at 1:46 pm |
  7. deborah,OH

    Thank Goodness! I just hope it isn't too late for most of the people there. The Disaster Aid People will help, almost more than the supplies at times. My prayers & thoughts are still with the people of Myanmar.

    May 23, 2008 at 1:05 pm |
  8. Cindy

    Finally the government has come to their senses and are letting in aid. It was ridiculous to begin with that they thought that they didn't need help. Any nation going through something like that would. Thankfully the people of Myanmar are finally getting the help that they deserve!

    May 23, 2008 at 10:50 am |

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