U.N. Rep Details Myanmar Devastation

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The worst-hit areas of Myanmar include Yangon and the Irrawaddy delta region. Marc Rapoport of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Burma talks to Michele Norris about the devastation and the challenge of getting outside aid groups access into Burma.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

It's not easy to reach people in Myanmar, and phone lines are not ideal. But we did speak earlier today with Marc Rapoport. He's with the United Nation's refugee agency, the UNHCR.

Mr. MARC RAPOPORT (Chief Representative, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees): We're now in Yangon and then the town has been devastated. What we hear from others who have made it to the lower parts of the delta just close to Yangon in the most affected area, the situation is even worse.

NORRIS: Have you had field reports from the hardest-hit areas?

Mr. RAPOPORT: What we are learning so far is that the percentage of damage is, you know, between 60 and 80 percent. Some villages have been wiped off. We rely to a great extent on the assessment of whoever has made it to the area, also the government.

KELEMEN: What can you tell us about how aid is actually getting into the country and how would it be distributed once it arrives?

Mr. RAPOPORT: Well, the government has officially welcomed assistance. For the time being, it's not yet clear what is the situation. So, what we have done so far, we have contributed some canned food, temporary shelters such as tents, plastic seating, and domestic items such as cooking sets or stoves. The needs, of course, are immense.

KELEMEN: Mr. Rapoport, do you intend to try to get to the hardest-hit region any time soon?

Mr. RAPOPORT: Yes, we are trying to - to access those areas, but we are also relying on the other agencies, other UN agencies or Red Cross.

KELEMEN: Is the local government there up to this?

Mr. RAPOPORT: Well, so far, they say that they are and they have a national committee that was established, and I trust that they do have logistics networks, we would see in the coming dates. Of course, this is a complex emergency and additional international support, from my point of view, would be needed, so we will do within our limited capacity.

KELEMEN: Now, we keep hearing about the death toll in the country. The estimated death toll keeps rising. It's now estimated to reach perhaps,50,000 people. What's that based on? How were you able to make these kinds of assessments?

Mr. RAPOPORT: Well, that death toll is the one provided by the government. In such situations, many people are missing, so it is a credible a death toll, but at this point in time, I mean, our thought isn't what to count, you know, exactly, but rather to assess needs and see what we can do within the current situation.

KELEMEN: All right. Mr. Rapoport, thank you very much.

Mr. RAPOPORT: Thank you.

KELEMEN: That was Marc Rapoport with the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, speaking to us from Myanmar's largest city, Yangon.

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Myanmar Cyclone's Devastation Rivals Tsunami

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IN DEPTH

Learn more about Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, and its government

Locals make their way past a fallen tree following a devastating cyclone, in Ya i

Locals make their way past a fallen tree in Yangon, Myanmar, one day after a devastating cyclone hit the area Saturday. The death toll has continued to rise since then. hide caption

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Locals make their way past a fallen tree following a devastating cyclone, in Ya

Locals make their way past a fallen tree in Yangon, Myanmar, one day after a devastating cyclone hit the area Saturday. The death toll has continued to rise since then.

World Vision, one of the few aid agencies with people working in Myanmar, has offered a few hints at the aftermath of a deadly cyclone there, describing piles of bodies and a massive rice-growing region devastated.

Myanmar officials said Tuesday that at least 22,000 people are dead and hundreds of thousands are homeless after the storm hit Saturday.

The nation formerly known as Burma has suffered much more from the cyclone than it did from the tsunami a few years ago, when it was spared the full force of the giant waves that killed hundreds of thousands elsewhere.

NPR's Michael Sullivan, who is tracking the story from Bangkok, tells Steve Inskeep that teams are still on the ground assessing the damage.

"We just don't have any clear indication yet about what the real situation is, but we know of course that it's dire for many people," Sullivan says. He is reporting from Bangkok because Myanmar's secretive military government — which had planned a controversial vote on a new constitution May 10 — has not let any journalists into the country yet.

The very low-lying landscape of Myanmar was inundated by a 12-foot wall of water generated by the cyclone, Sullivan says. Burmese officials in the capital Tuesday said that wave, not the cyclone itself, caused most of the casualties in villages near or along the ocean, Sullivan says.

Aid agencies have offered to help, and the government has reportedly accepted the offers, but there are no reports of aid agencies getting new people into the country, or receiving shipments of food, water or portable shelter, Sullivan says. They have been transporting what they already had in country.

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