Lack of Access Could Raise Death Toll in Myanmar Relief supplies from the United Nations are arriving in Myanmar, following last weekend's deadly cyclone. But U.S. military planes with aid for victims are still being denied. U.N. Under-Secretary General John Holmes talks with Melissa Block.
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Lack of Access Could Raise Death Toll in Myanmar

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Lack of Access Could Raise Death Toll in Myanmar

Lack of Access Could Raise Death Toll in Myanmar

Lack of Access Could Raise Death Toll in Myanmar

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Relief supplies from the United Nations are arriving in Myanmar, following last weekend's deadly cyclone. But U.S. military planes with aid for victims are still being denied. U.N. Under-Secretary General John Holmes talks with Melissa Block.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And now we're joined by the United Nations emergency relief coordinator in New York, John Holmes.

Mr. Holmes, welcome to the program.

Mr. JOHN HOLMES (Emergency Relief Coordinator, United Nations): Very nice to speak to you.

BLOCK: It seems that the fear now is clearly of a second catastrophic wave in Myanmar; first those who were killed by the cyclone itself, and now those who appear likely to die because of the lack of medical care or clean water or shelter; is that right?

Mr. HOLMES: I think that is our main concern at the moment, that people are living in extremely difficult conditions down in the delta where the worst of the cyclone and in particular tidal wave was. Most of it's flooded, the wells are flooded, so there's lack of clean water and there are many, many bodies of people and livestock in the water and lying around, so the obvious risk of contamination.

So the fear is of - of disease, of cholera or dysentery or something of that kind, malaria spreading through mosquitoes, obviously with the water there. And this will have a potentially devastating effect on people who are weakened through lack of shelter and lack of food as well. So that is the major concern, to avoid this kind of second catastrophe, which always looms when you've had a first catastrophe if you can't get the aid in there quickly enough.

BLOCK: And it's not coming in quickly enough, specifically not just because of the difficulties on the ground, but because of the intransigence of the government in Myanmar.

Mr. HOLMES: It's a combination of the two. I mean even we had full cooperation we would still be struggling to get enough aid down to these very difficult of access regions where the roads are washed away, the bridges are down. But of course, as you say, this is compounded by the difficulties of cooperation with the government. They have said they welcome international assistance, but in terms of speed of clearance of air shipments coming in, in terms of ease of access for the really experienced international relief workers we need, that's where we've really been struggling, and that's where we're pressing them to be as fast and cooperative and as open as possible, because we're simply trying to help them to help their own people.

BLOCK: And how would you describe their response? What words would you use?

Mr. HOLMES: Frustrating and disappointing. Although, as I say, there has been a degree of cooperation in accepting that they need international assistance, which wasn't to be taken for granted and not all countries, even in desperate situations, do ask for help. But it's moving much too slowly given the scale and potential of the disaster we're facing.

BLOCK: Frustrating and disappointing, you said. Other diplomats, as you know, have used much stronger language. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Zalmay Khalilzad, said that if U.S. is outraged by the slowness of the response from the Myanmar government. Is that language helpful, hurtful to your effort?

Mr. HOLMES: Well, my focus is on getting the aid to the people as quickly as possible, and I will do whatever I need to do to achieve that, and that is much better achieved by working with the government. It's not clear to me, at this stage anyway, the bludgeoning them over the head is going to make any difference or make it any better. We have to work with them.

BLOCK: It's been five days now. The more time that goes on, the more people who will die.

Mr. HOLMES: You're absolutely right, but it's always a slow process, even in the best of circumstances. You know, it is always slow and frustrating. Everybody wishes it could be quicker, most of all me. But we have to sort of work with what we've got and do it as fast as we can.

BLOCK: We mentioned earlier that U.N. planes arrived today in Myanmar, in the largest city, Yangon. What is on those planes?

Mr. HOLMES: They're World Food Program planes loaded particularly with high-energy biscuits. The significance of that is - this is food which can be distributed easily and quickly, eaten without any cooking or preparation, when we still have the problem of getting it from the airport in Yangon to the people on the ground, you know, hundreds of miles from there in extremely difficult terrain.

BLOCK: And how quickly might that happen?

Mr. HOLMES: Well, it'll happen as quickly as we can possibly do it.

BLOCK: John Holmes, thanks very much for talking with us.

Mr. HOLMES: Thank you.

BLOCK: John Holmes is emergency relief coordinator with the United Nations.

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U.S. Aid Supplies Blocked from Reaching Myanmar

U.S. Diplomat: Junta Leaders Block Aid

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Jeff Wright of Worldvision; Burmese-American Tin Thaw

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At least two U.N. planes carrying much-needed humanitarian supplies landed in Myanmar on Thursday. But the country's military government is still blocking supplies from the United States from reaching victims of Cyclone Nargis.

There is still no approval for U.S. cargo planes filled with drinking water and other aid materials to land inside Myanmar, also known as Burma.

A U.S. disaster assistance response team also is grounded in Thailand, until Myanmar issues visas for the group. U.S. Ambassador Eric John said the United States is ready to help, with more than $3 million in aid.

A top U.S. aid official says the U.S. may consider air-dropping supplies for survivors even without permission from the Myanmar junta.

But Defense Secretary Robert Gates says that's not a real possibility.

"One would hope that as the Burmese leadership surveys this massive scale of death and human suffering in Burma," Ambassador John said, "they'll see that it's imperative that humanitarian assistance flows in."

An international aid worker with British-based Save the Children in Myanmar said the group has been giving out rice, salt, cooking oil and cash to help victims of the deadly storm.

The U.S. military stepped up preparations Thursday for a humanitarian mission, readying some ships and Marines that are in the region for a multinational exercise.

Though the country's military-ruled government had not accepted the offer of help, the U.S. Air Force also moved more airplanes to a staging area in neighboring Thailand, Air Force spokeswoman Megan Orton said at the Pentagon.

As the humanitarian disaster in Myanmar unfolded this week, the Navy and Marine Corps happened to have ships and thousands of service members in the Gulf of Thailand for a multinational exercise on humanitarian missions — an exercise that started Thursday.

The group includes the USS Essex, the USS Juneau and the USS Harpers Ferry. The Essex is an amphibious assault ship with 23 helicopters aboard, including 19 capable of lifting cargo from ship to shore, as well as about 1,500 Marines.

The Essex and Juneau were expected to depart the gulf later Thursday when they finished off-loading the helicopters, then steam around the Malay Peninsula through the Strait of Malacca and into the Andaman Sea to be in position closer to Myanmar.

The Harpers Ferry and the destroyer USS Mustin were expected to start their transit toward Myanmar on Friday, according to a defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

Officials said that although Myanmar's junta has not agreed to allow U.S. humanitarian assistance, it did ask for other U.S. help — satellite pictures of the cyclone-devastated areas.

"They asked our defense attache at the embassy in Rangoon for some imagery, and we provided it," said Marine Maj. Stuart Upton, a Pentagon spokesman.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press