[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/06/02/art.myanmarconstruction.jpg caption="A road construction crew in Myanmar adds new surface to a highway north of Yangoon."]
Director Of Programs
Save the Children
It’s been 24 days since Cyclone Nargis wrought havoc across the Irrawaddy Delta and Yangon in Myanmar. Since the day we mounted our response to the cyclone, we have kept track of our progress, expressed in numbers of people reached, the townships and villages we covered, and the aid we provided.
Each day, as we consolidate reports from our various relief teams providing assistance in the Irrawaddy and Yangon, the question always at the forefront is: How many people have we reached? Every time I look at the figure at the bottom of our report that notes “population covered” I always feel triumphant. It’s like winning an election, consistently increasing our lead against hunger, disease and homelessness as we go deeper into unreached areas in the Irrawaddy Delta as well as in Yangon.
Today, we have reached a milestone: We passed the 200,000 mark in our coverage. We have reached 209,000 men, women and children — 20 times the number on the first day, 20% of the estimated 1 million people helped by local and international NGOs. We have delivered 628,000 kilograms of rice, 67,000 packets of oral rehydration solution, 136,000 yards of tarpaulin, among other items, across 17 townships in Yangon and Irrawaddy Delta. And this is just a partial report from the field.
In Yangon where markets are working, we provided cash amounting to 2,000 Kyats, equivalent to $1.80 per family per day, in lieu of food. This is less than the price of a café latte at a Starbucks in Bangkok. (There are no multinational fast food chains in Yangon, and Bangkok is the nearest metropolis, just an hour’s airplane ride away.) The cash allows families greater latitude to make choices: “We just need some amount for food for a few days, and for bus fare so we can go to the city and work..” This from a man whose house had been completely flattened by the cyclone. A carpenter who lost his tools asked for a hammer ($2.50) and a hand saw ($6.20). He said he would be sure to find a job with all the rebuilding going on.
Behind the numbers, there are stories of great courage, patience and determination. It took our team from Yangon nearly four days to reach Haingyi Gyun and Pyin Khayaing islands in the southeastern part of Myanmar by truck and by boat. Some of the team were themselves victims of the cyclone: Their homes were damaged, they had no water and electricity. But there was no question that they wanted to head to the islands. As of today, we have reached 47,000 there, and the numbers are increasing as I write.
Our office building was not spared by the calamity. Two of our overhead water tanks were blown. Our entire third floor was wet, so we all huddled on the first floor (our offices occupy two floors in the building), working two to three on a table or hunched on the floor amid sacks of rice and rolls of tarpaulin. The cramped working space magnified the excitement palpable among the staff and the volunteers: Yes, we are proud to be part of the response. Yes, we will go where we are needed. And yes, we’re ready to leave NOW.
Each of us in the organization morphed into the persona needed to respond to the emergency: our regional HIV/AIDS adviser transformed into an expert communications/media coordinator; program managers became agile relief logisticians and distributors; artists became adept cartographers as they mapped townships and villages reached or yet to be reached by our relief teams. I have reinvented myself into a statistician of sorts, analyzing average numbers of people reached per day in relief distribution (8,600 and increasing); number of family shelters that can be built from our cumulative distribution of plastic sheeting (13,600 and counting); average number of children under 5 years old covered per day by food and non-food items distribution (1,032 and increasing).
Of course, we are ambitious. We aim to double our coverage. We know we can only do this if we can operate on full capacity, with a team of national and international staff reaching those unreached or underserved villages. We’re ready. We’re waiting at the threshold. Most of our “cavalry” is here or on their way.
With more support coming, I am excited to have another opportunity to reinvent myself. Someone else will now be watching the numbers, vicariously experiencing the adrenaline rush, the fulfillment that comes out of watching a child’s eyes light up because help has arrived. For a change, I will be out there helping to make it happen.
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