Expert: Toll in Myanmar May Surpass 2004 Tsunami Relief has begun trickling into Myanmar after the weekend's devastating Cyclone Nargis. James East of World Vision, one of the few aid agencies with a longstanding presence there, talks about the challenges ahead.
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Expert: Toll in Myanmar May Surpass 2004 Tsunami

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Expert: Toll in Myanmar May Surpass 2004 Tsunami

Expert: Toll in Myanmar May Surpass 2004 Tsunami

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The death toll continued to mount yesterday in Myanmar as aid began to trickle in after a devastating cyclone that happened there on Saturday. Most recent figures put the death toll at 22,000. As many as a million people have been left homeless. James East is with one of the few humanitarian agencies that have had a long-standing presence in Myanmar, the country formally known as Burma.

It's been reported that 10,000 - that's approaching half the victims - came from a single town, Bogalay, in the hard-hit rice-farming region of Irrawaddy. James East is the communications director for the Asia-Pacific region for World Vision, and he joins me now on the line. Mr. East, can you tell us what you know about Bogalay. What are the reports coming from there as far as how much aid has been able to reach folks?

Mr. JAMES EAST (Communications Director, Asia-Pacific Region, World Vision): We know from what we've seen from the helicopter pictures that it was largely flattened. They are saying that, as you said, 10,000 people have died. You know, we know that the storm surge would have flooded across the patty fields and obviously washed the homes away.

There will be very, very limited aid getting in. Obviously, there are helicopters - military helicopters flying in aid, but you know, military helicopters are not the best way of getting vast amounts of aid in. They just carry too little. So what we've sent up there is an assessment team to visit five areas. They'll take their time. They'll be back on Monday because they've got to visit these five areas in what is very difficult terrain now.

MARTIN: We should mention that you are on the phone now from Thailand, where you're based, but you and World Vision have teams that are on the ground in Burma?

Mr. EAST: What we had was program areas which were within striking distance of the worst-affected areas in Irrawaddy Division, which is this delta area. And so, staff have been going out from these areas. They will be going out to basically track down the numbers of people affected, what kind of damage, what are people lacking, and once we get that information, we can then really begin to build a programmatic response.

MARTIN: Can you characterize the situation there? The scope of the loss of life, the damage, what have you learned from your people there as to the extent? It just seems like every day the numbers of fatalities just keep rising, the number of homeless - can you give a sense of really the devastation there?

Mr. EAST: Well, I think we all have pictures of the tsunami, which struck, obviously, Southeast Asia, and one of my colleagues said to me, he said the situation isn't as bad as the tsunami. In fact, he said, it was worse. And it's important to remember that this area was hit by the tsunami of 2004. I mean, the terrible tragedy of it is that it's a fairly poor area. People have lost their crops. They lost their homes.

So they really are going to be starting from scratch, and you know, the challenge to get aid in is enormous because there's flooding. Our staff is saying bridges are down. You have to go on foot. You have to take boats. You may even have to swim across rivers. You know, you've just got this vast area of very flat delta which is very inaccessible.

MARTIN: And we all remember after the tsunami, there were telethons, and there was so much press, international coverage of this, the images running looped on television. Clearly, it's a different situation in Myanmar, with it being such a closed society ruled by a military junta. What is the impact of that? The fact that it is such a closed society there's not nearly the international attention and media coverage?

Mr. EAST: Yeah. I mean, it's interesting. I remember the tsunami, obviously, hit in Aceh, Indonesia, and if you remember at that time, that area was in conflict with the rebels fighting the government, and yet, the result of that was something very significant. You know, there was a peace process and peace broke out and that was a peace dividend for Aceh. It would be wonderful to think that, out of the kind of the ashes of this disaster, there might be some sort of reconciliation and an opportunity for the mistrust to break down.

MARTIN: Can you discuss what you understand to be the involvement of the military in the aid effort, in the rescue-and-recovery effort? What is the military's role in helping clean up after this crisis?

Mr. EAST: Well, what you're seeing is them flying helicopters in and getting aid out. In fact, you know, when you look at the TV pictures that are provided by the state, you're seeing helicopters being loaded up with rice, et cetera, and that's going out which is, you know, all well and good. But the scale of this is so big that really need to have a full-blown international response, not just for the short term, because these people will need long-term assistance and that means that you have to help people recover their livelihoods, replant crops, and they've lost all their rice. You have to help people rebuild their businesses, et cetera.

MARTIN: I want to talk to you about that rice that you mentioned. The Irrawaddy Delta - this is a place that is responsible for a lot of the rice production in Myanmar, and that rice is then exported out of the country to other regional countries. What is the impact, especially now during this global food crisis, when the prices of food are so high and food is scarce in many countries? What are the short- and long-term effects of that - of the damage to the rice crops in particular?

Mr. EAST: Well, I think, obviously, the primary impact is going to be in the county itself. This area is the Rice Bowl of Myanmar. It's very productive. And we've heard some stuff on the ground in Yangon that rice has doubled in price. I think someone was telling me that it was now $1.20 for two kilos. That was a doubling in the last few days. I know that the authorities had plans to export rice to Sri Lanka, which has a shortfall of rice. So, at some point this is going to feed into the kind of global rice supply chain and will undoubtedly have an effect.

MARTIN: What do you need right now? What does World Vision need right now, in terms of getting aid to people?

Mr. EAST: Well, we have warehouses positioned in the U.S. and Germany and in Dubai, and in those warehouses we have tarpaulins and tents, medicines, water-purification systems, kitchen sets, mosquito nets, and so we would like to get those into the country. But more than that, I mean, it basically comes down to money at the end of the day. If we can get our hands on some money, we can make a difference. World Vision has got a three-million-dollar appeal. We want to help 250,000 people within the first 30 days.

MARTIN: Thank you very much. James East is the communications director for the Asia-Pacific region for the international-aid agency World Vision. Thanks very much, Mr. East.

Mr. EAST: Thank you so much.

PESCA: And next up on the show, there may be a crisis brewing at the Board of Patent Appeals, and it's all thanks to John Duffy. Who? What? The hubbub demystified, coming up on the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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