Myanmar Cyclone Victims Still Suffering

This weekend marks one year since a major cyclone hit Myanmar, which was formerly known as Burma. More than 140,000 people were killed. Chris Kaye of the World Food Program tells Steve Inskeep that thousands are still without jobs and housing.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

One year ago this weekend, a cyclone struck the coast of Myanmar. And this morning, we'll check in again with one of the people who struggled to help in the aftermath. Chris Kaye works for the World Food Program. In May of 2008, he was working in the city of Yangon, but the military government would not let him travel to the coast.

Mr. CHRIS KAYE (Worker, World Food Program): The information that we're getting back has been very harrowing, I mean, just - there are numbers of people who have perished as a result of their combination of the storm surge and the high winds. You know, it's just absolutely ghastly. I mean, the numbers are mind-altering, and I can't imagine what it must be to experience and to witness the amount of corpses which we hear are just lying in shallow water.

INSKEEP: That was Chris Kaye of the World Food Program in 2008. One year later, he's on the line again from the country sometimes known as Burma. Welcome back.

Mr. KAYE: Thank you very much. Please to be with you again.

INSKEEP: You're not allowed to see the coastline one year ago. I assume you've being close to the coastal areas since.

Mr. KAYE: Yes, I have. I've traveled in and out of the delta on regular occasions.

INSKEEP: And what is the situation now?

Mr. KAYE: Well, I think that we've made quite significant progress. Those first three weeks or so immediately in the aftermath of the cyclone were really worrisome. We weren't able to do as much as we would like. And it wasn't really until after that we really got a sense of how devastating the impact of the cyclone really was. The period thereafter, I think, really has been quite extraordinary in terms of the way that the international community has been able to cooperate within Myanmar and alongside the government. The assistance effort has been largely successful. We didn't see the second wave of death that we were all very worried about after the cyclone struck.

INSKEEP: Oh, you mean the wave of death from disease after the collapse of - that didn't happen.

Mr. KAYE: That didn't happen, no. And much of that has to do with the fact that we were able to mobilize a very significant response.

INSKEEP: Well, now ,that leads to another question: How would you describe the coastal areas of Myanmar when you've seen them in recent months?

Mr. KAYE: Well, the delta is - it's coming back. I mean, there is recovery that is going on, but it's patchy and it's not, unfortunately, at the level yet where we can feel confident that we can scale back our assistance in any meaningful way. The reality is that I think a cyclone, as devastating as it was and the impact that it had on many people's lives - we're talking about a total number of 920,000 people needing food assistance in the immediate aftermath of the cyclone, people who had basically lost absolutely everything including, you know, the shirt off their back in many cases.

Building your life back from nothing certainly takes more than 12 months. You know, one of the biggest challenges that we currently have is with regard to shelter. Although there has been some rebuilding of more permanent shelter than houses for people, it hasn't been sufficient. And, in fact, we currently now, with this year's monsoon just beginning to start, we know that over 130,000 families are still living in substandard shelters.

INSKEEP: Has this disaster had a political effect?

Mr. KAYE: Well, this has been a big question. Of course, it's the extent to which actually the cooperation that we've been able to have with the government can actually translate into enabling us to do much more in the rest of the country. You know, there's a growing level of trust and appreciation, I think, of the work of the humanitarian community. We don't want to be compromised by the political debate, which, of course, is very legitimate. But at the end of the day, our concern is being able to ensure that people who need humanitarian assistance receives it.

INSKEEP: Chris Kaye of the World Food Program in Myanmar. Thanks very much.

Mr. KAYE: You're very welcome, sir.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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