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Myanmar Cyclone Death Toll at 78,000 and Climbing May 16, 2008

Filed under: Natural Disasters — gervmaine @ 1:42 pm
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YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — The official death toll from Cyclone Nargis has nearly doubled to almost 78,000 and another 56,000 people remain missing two weeks after the storm, Myanmar state television reported Friday. 

The United Nations, meanwhile, said that severe restrictions by Myanmar’s military junta have left aid agencies largely in the dark about the extent of survivors’ suffering.

John Holmes, U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, will go to Myanmar on Sunday in an attempt to convince junta leaders to grant more access to U.N. relief workers and massively scale up aid efforts, said Amanda Pitt, a U.N. spokeswoman in Bangkok, Thailand.

With pressure mounting, the military regime has invited foreign diplomats to tour the hard-hit Irrawaddy delta on Saturday, providing their first opportunity to personally view the devastation.

U.S. Embassy charge d’affaires Shari Villarosa told The Associated Press Friday that the Foreign Ministry was arranging the trip, but no further details were available and it was unclear how much access the diplomats will have outside the controlled tour.

The handful of foreign experts who have been allowed into the country have been restricted to Yangon, the former capital. The government has set up police and military checkpoints on roads leading out of Yangon to Irrawaddy, where foreigners are being turned back.

The Red Cross fears the cyclone toll may be as high as 128,000; the U.N. estimates more than 100,000 died. The U.N. estimates 1.5 million to 2.5 million survivors are in desperate need of food, water, shelter and medical care. Aid groups have reached only 270,000 so far.

“The risk increases with each passing day,” Pitt said, referring to the vulnerability of survivors to outbreaks of disease and other problems.

Lack of clean water will be “the biggest killer” in Irrawaddy in the coming days, Thomas Gurtner, the head of operations for the international Red Cross, told The Associated Press in Geneva.

“To be able to provide clean water to hundreds of thousands of people stranded in the (Irrawaddy) delta requires a major operation, which we have neither the material, the logistical nor the staff capacity to do,” he said.

The U.N. health agency said Friday it was concerned about diarrhea, malaria and dengue fever spreading among the cyclone victims.

The junta insists Myanmar nationals and government agencies, including the military, can handle relief operations, particularly aid distribution.

“We still have obstacles to relief workers getting to the delta region, which doesn’t help,” Pitt said. “We are concerned about the effects on the people. It is clear, from what everyone is saying, the aid effort is far from over.”

The United Nations says the regime has issued 40 visas to its staffers and another 46 to nongovernment agencies but has confined the personnel to the immediate Yangon area.

Steve Marshall, a U.N. official who just came out of Myanmar, said the military has set up checkpoints on the two main roads to the delta to keep foreigners out of the disaster zone. Even local staff have to negotiate with the military to gain access to the camps.

“Things will still get done, but they will not be done as effectively, efficiently or as quickly, which means delays, which means increasing risk in terms of health, security and in terms of longer-term rehabilitation and getting back to a normal lifestyle,” he said.

The U.N. Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, said Friday the agency’s fourth flight into Myanmar, scheduled for Saturday, would deliver several tons of food for malnourished children. Radio broadcasts are trying to help lost children find their families, it said.

“At the moment, it is a difficult to know how many children have been separated or unaccompanied. We still have no indication of how many orphans there may be,” said Shantha Bloemen, a UNICEF spokeswoman.

Meanwhile the U.N.’s World Food Program said Friday it has applied for permission to operate a civilian helicopter to distribute aid across Myanmar.

In the absence of an organized relief effort by the government, ordinary people are stepping in, with shopkeepers handing out free rice porridge and medical students caring for the sick.

Daw Mya Win, a 49-year-old grocer in a Yangon suburb, cooks rice porridge every day to feed anyone who comes. She also sends pots of it to some of the thousands of homeless sheltering in Buddhist monasteries.

College students are going door-to-door, handing out a few pennies to families for rice.

“Whenever we distribute rice and clothing, I can see the faces of the cyclone victims light up. It is very rewarding to see them smile,” said Nyi Nyi, 21


China Quake Death Toll Tops 12,000; 18,000 Buried in Ruble May 13, 2008

Filed under: Natural Disasters — gervmaine @ 10:12 am
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JIANGYOU, China (CNN) — The death toll from the massive earthquake in central China exceeded 12,000 Tuesday, as rescue workers frantically tried to pull victims from the rubble and clear roads of debris so more relief can be delivered.

A senior official with the Sichuan Provincial government said Tuesday the death toll in the province has surpassed 12,000 and is rising, state-run news agency Xinhua reported.

Li Chengyun, vice governor of Sichuan, said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon that the death toll was based on incomplete figures tallied by 4 p.m. (4 a.m. ET) Tuesday.

He said another 26,206 people were injured and as many as 3.5 million homes have been destroyed.

Xinhua also reported that more than 18,645 people were buried under rubble in the city of Mianyang alone. 3,629 people were also reported dead in the city, which neighbors the epicenter of the earthquake.

A string of nearly 30 seismic jolts hit the province in the first 24 hours following Monday’s quake and slowed the progress of 1,300-strong rescue teams. All of those quakes were magnitude 4.0 and above.

A Chinese Civil Affairs Ministry official said his country welcomes foreign donations of money and materials, but it is not ready for outside teams of rescue and relief workers because its transportation system could not handle the additional traffic.

Roads blocked by rocks and mudslides had hampered the effort to reach the epicenter in Wenchuan County, forcing military doctors and soldiers to walk to reach the area almost 24 hours after the 7.9 magnitude earthquake shook central China, Xinhua said.

Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao ordered the military to make it a priority to open the roads into Wenchuan County, home to about 100,000 people, by mid-day Tuesday. The premier arrived in the earthquake zone Monday to personally direct the relief efforts.

Several thousand additional soldiers should reach the area later Tuesday afternoon, Xinhua said.

Heavy rains forced the military to cancel plans to drop Chinese People’s Liberation Army paratroopers into the Wenchuan area, Xinhua said. Bad weather also has grounded all helicopter relief efforts, the military said.

CNN’s John Vause saw block after block of devastation in the town of Jiang You, about 60 miles (100 km) from the epicenter, arriving there about a day after the quake hit.

“These people who live in the city are now hunkering down under tarpaulins and under tents,” Vause said, as a steady drizzle added to the misery. “Many are afraid to go back indoors because their buildings are no longer safe.”

Communications with survivors near the epicenter has been difficult because of broken telecommunication lines and poor weather. An official using a satellite phone did give an initial report that about a third of all buildings had collapsed and another third were seriously damaged, Xinhua said.

In Guixi Township –35 km (22 miles) from the epicenter — thousands of residents huddled under makeshift tents and tarps, their only shelter from a steady rain Tuesday.

Row after row of houses collapsed during the earthquake, leaving people with no place to go. Many injured and hungry people wondered the streets, creating a scene of human misery. The roads to the town are open, but still no relief workers were around.

An expert told CNN the earthquake, which struck at 2:28 p.m. (2:28 a.m. ET) Monday, was the largest the region has seen “for over a generation.”

The area is also the refuge for much of China’s panda population. The fate of the 130 pandas housed at the Wolong Giant Panda Protection and Research Center was unknown, Xinhua reported.

President Bush said the United States is prepared to help China “in any way possible” in the quake’s aftermath.

A top U.S. aid official said Beijing had not yet requested assistance.

The United States has search-and-rescue teams standing by in Virginia and California, said Ky Luu, the director of foreign disaster assistance for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Luu said Beijing has good disaster-response mechanisms of its own.

“The Chinese have a strong capability of responding,” he said, adding that the United States doesn’t want to displace the internal expertise. “There is a 72-hour window of opportunity and it may be best to support regional teams on the ground.”

Some 20,000 Chinese troops have been deployed to the region, while another 24,000 are scheduled to be airlifted to affected areas, Xinhua reported. Another 3,000 police officers have been activated.

“It looks like they’ve mounted a pretty monumental effort to do the best that they can there,” said Kate Janie, director of Mercy Corps, a humanitarian group channeling disaster aid to the region through a partner agency. “I think the Chinese government will make very active, proactive, transparent steps in dealing with this.”

Zhenyao said 60,000 tents and 50,000 quilts have been dispatched to the disaster zone.

Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport reopened Tuesday after authorities inspected its runways for damage following the quake, Xinhua reported. The resumption of air service gives the province additional links for funneling supplies into the badly battered region.

A 40-car freight train, carrying 13 tankers full of gasoline, derailed and caught fire Monday in Gansu province, officials said, according to state-run media, cutting the Baoji-Chengdu railway.

Monday’s quake shook the ground in Beijing, 950 miles (1,528 km) away. Residents of the capital, which hosts this year’s Olympic Games in August, said they felt a rolling sensation that lasted about a minute. It resulted in the evacuation of thousands of people from Beijing buildings.

A spokesman for the Beijing Olympic Committee said no Olympic venues were affected.


Death Toll in China May Top 5,000 May 12, 2008

Filed under: Natural Disasters — gervmaine @ 9:15 am

CHONGQING, China – Chinese state media say 3,000 to 5,000 people have died in one county in Sichuan province alone from a massive earthquake.

The official Xinhua News Agency said Monday that another 10,000 people were believed hurt in Beichuan county after the 7.8-magnitude quake.

Nearly 900 students were trapped after their school collapsed about 60 miles from the epicenter. Photos showed heavy cranes trying to remove rubble from the ruined school.

The earthquake struck in the middle of the afternoon when classes and office towers were full.

The temblor was felt as far away as Pakistan, Vietnam and Thailand.

The official Xinhua News Agency reported that four of the dead were ninth-grade students killed when their high school collapsed. Photos showed heavy cranes trying to remove rubble from the ruined school. Xinhua did not say how many of the students were feared dead.

It said its reporters in Juyuan township, about 60 miles from the epicenter, saw buried teenagers struggling to break loose from underneath the rubble of the three-story building “while others were crying out for help.”

Two girls were quoted by Xinhua as saying they escaped because they had “run faster than others.”

The earthquake comes less than three months before the start of the Beijing Summer Olympics, when China hopes to use to showcase its rise in the world.

The earthquake struck in the middle of the afternoon when classes and office towers were full, about 60 miles northwest of Chengdu. There were several smaller aftershocks, the U.S. Geological Survey said on its Web site.

Calls into the city did not go through as panicked residents quickly overloaded the telephone system. The quake affected telephone and power networks, and even state media appeared to have few details of the disaster.

“In Chengdu, mobile telecommunication convertors have experienced jams and thousands of servers were out of service,” said Sha Yuejia, deputy chief executive officer of China Mobile.

Although it was difficult to telephone Chengdu, an Israeli student, Ronen Medzini, sent a text message to The Associated Press saying there were power and water outages there.

“Traffic jams, no running water, power outs, everyone sitting in the streets, patients evacuated from hospitals sitting outside and waiting,” he said.

Xinhua said an underground water pipe ruptured near the city’s southern railway station, flooding a main thoroughfare. Reporters saw buildings with cracks in their walls but no collapses, Xinhua said.

The earthquake also rattled buildings in Beijing, some 930 miles to the north, less than three months before the Chinese capital was expected to be full of hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors for the Summer Olympics.

Many Beijing office towers were evacuated, including the building housing the media offices for the organizers of the Olympics, which start in August.

“I’ve lived in Taipei and California and I’ve been through quakes before. This is the most I’ve ever felt,” said James McGregor, a business consultant who was inside the LG Towers in Beijing’s business district. “The floor was moving underneath me.”

In Fuyang, 660 miles to the east, chandeliers in the lobby of the Buckingham Palace Hotel swayed. “We’ve never felt anything like this our whole lives,” said a hotel employee surnamed Zhu.

Patients at the Fuyang People’s No. 1 Hospital were evacuated. An hour after the quake, a half-dozen patients in blue-striped pajamas stood outside the hospital. One was laying on a hospital bed in the parking lot.

Skyscrapers in Shanghai swayed and most office occupants went rushing into the streets.

In the Taiwanese capital of Taipei, 100 miles off the southeastern Chinese coast, buildings swayed when the quake hit. There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage.

The quake was felt as far away as the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, where some people hurried out of swaying office buildings and into the streets downtown. A building in the Thai capital of Bangkok also was evacuated after the quake was felt there.

A magnitude 7.8 earthquake is considered a major event, capable of causing widespread damage and injuries in populated areas.

The last serious earthquake in China was in 2003, when a 6.8-magnitude quake killed 268 people in Bachu county in the west of Xinjiang.

China’s deadliest earthquake in modern history struck the northeastern city of Tangshan on July 28, 1976, killing 240,000 people.


U.N. halts Myanmar flights after aid ‘seized’ May 9, 2008

Filed under: Natural Disasters,This Is What's Wrong with the World — gervmaine @ 9:01 am

BANGKOK, Thailand (CNN) — Authorities in cyclone-ravaged Myanmar have seized United Nations aid intended for victims of the disaster, prompting the organization to halt future relief flights, a U.N. World Food Program official said. 

The organization, which insists on distributing its own relief supplies, says two aircraft-loads of food, medicine and equipment, were seized by the army in Myanmar’s main city Yangon.

“This is another example of them actively getting in the way of relief getting to the victims,” said Tony Banbury, Asia director of the World Food Program.

Asked whether the move would jeopardize future U.N. aid flights, he said, “absolutely, from our perspective, it shuts them down.”

On Saturday, the United Nations had been planning three further aid flights, from Dubai, India and Cambodia. It would bring tons of biscuits, emergency ready-to-eat meals, and logistical support and equipment, such as boats, to reach isolated areas.

The powerful cyclone, which swept through the country’s low-lying river delta regions last weekend killed 22,000, according to Myanmar officials. Foreign observers say 100,000 may have perished, while many more are at risk of disease and starvation.

The seizure of the planes is being seen as a tug of war over who controls aid distribution, and could have a major impact on aid distribution in Myanmar.

U.N. aid officials have warned in recent days that if there are no guarantees that this and future aid can be distributed under its rules. They say they plan to discuss the issue with officials from Myanmar.

The international community, including the United States, has been frustrated by the efforts to distribute aid in Myanmar.

In an effort it says is to speed relief delivery by its military personnel, the United States has devised a new plan that it hopes will be accepted by Myanmar’s government.

The ruling junta is suspicious of any U.S. military presence it sees as potentially aimed at unseating the government, a prospect the Bush Administration has repeatedly denied.

One senior U.S. military official tells CNN that the United States is presenting Myanmar with an aid plan that would minimize the presence of American troops on the ground.

The United States is proposing that C-130s fly into the Myanmar carrying U.N. supplies. The planes would drop supplies off and then turn around and leave. But they would conduct as many flights as possible.

The United States is also proposing that Navy helicopters already in Thailand and on board U.N. Navy ships in the region fly supplies to remote areas. The helicopters would conduct low-level flights and air drop the supplies but not touch the ground.

Four U.S. Navy ships are now moving to a region offshore Myanmar. They are the USS Essex, USS Juneau, USS Harpers Ferry and USS Mustin. Some U.S. Marines are ashore in Thailand for an exercise but could readily be moving to relief operations.

Meanwhile, Paul Risley, a spokesman for the U.N. World Food Program, told CNN the agency has never encountered such resistance to offers of help in such a mushrooming humanitarian crisis.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said the military junta in Myanmar has behaved “appallingly” by declining to grant more visas to relief workers.


Massive Sinkole in Texas Continues to Grow May 8, 2008

Filed under: Miscellaneous News,Natural Disasters — gervmaine @ 11:36 am
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DAISETTA, Texas — A massive sinkhole that has swallowed everything in its path is continuing to grow, officials told KPRC Local 2 Thursday.

Slideshow: Massive Sinkhole In Liberty County

The sinkhole, which is the size of almost seven football fields, is located in a rural area near FM 770, just north of Daisetta in Liberty County

It’s stabilized as far as coming towards the road,” said Cpl. Hugh Bishop with the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office. “There’s other pieces that have dropped off there, but as far as getting towards the road, we’re still comfortable with where it is right now.”

It started as a crack in the road and grew into the sinkhole starting at about 10 a.m. Wednesday. It grew to at least 400 yards wide, 600 yards north to south and 150 to 250 feet deep.

Officials said they were worried that the sinkhole would get closer to FM 770 overnight, but it did not grow too much in that direction. Officials said it has grown in all directions, but they are most concerned about its progress to the east.

Construction equipment, tanks, trees and everything else in its path fell into the hole. Crews drained tanks in that could be consumed by the hole.

Daisetta was built on salt domes and experts believe the oil taken from the wells caused the land to cave in.

Oil gathered at the bottom of the sinkhole. The property it consumed was described as a disposal well.

“They inject salt water when they’re drilling oil wells in the area. They store the salt water and inject it back into the ground,” said Chief Les Hulsey of the Daisetta Police Department. “That well is still pressured up and holding pressure. The sinkhole hasn’t affected it.”

The Texas Railroad Commission is at the scene of the sinkhole. That agency oversees oil and gas production and transportation in Texas.

The nearest home to the sinkhole is about a quarter-mile to a half-mile away. No evacuations were ordered, but residents said they were nervous that they may have to leave their homes.

“If it gets to it, I’ll get ready,” one resident said.

Bishop said about 100 homes were fairly close to the hole.

Families watched closely as the hole inched closer and closer to their homes. “They told us they would get us if it becomes dangerous. Our daughter is worried,” said Mary McCann.

City officials said they have a plan if they have to order evacuations.

“The fire department, everybody, is going to get out,” Daisetta Mayor Lynn Wells said.

Bishop said residents should not try to go near the sinkhole to get a first-hand look.

“We don’t know what parts will drop off or when, so it’s best just to stay back,” he said.

No injuries have been reported.

Highway 770 was closed on Wednesday and not expected to reopen on Thursday. Traffic was diverted to FM 834. All schools and businesses remained open. Officials have not yet placed a monetary value on the destruction.

 Daisetta is about 50 miles northeast of Houston. It has a population of about 1,000.


How You Can Help With the Myanmar Disaster

Filed under: Natural Disasters — gervmaine @ 8:56 am

Relief groups scramble to aid Myanmar
Relief groups struggled to get aid to Myanmar as one U.S. diplomat warned that the death toll from the cyclone may reach more than 100,000. Officials say that nearly 2,000 square miles of the Asian country is still underwater. Last Friday’s cyclone was the worst disaster the country had suffered in years. Story | Video | In-Depth | iReport

Here are some agencies that are working to provide emergency relief in Myanmar:

U.S.-based organizations

International Rescue Committee
International Medical Corps
Save the Children
World Vision
ADRA International
Other U.S.-based charities

Global organizations

World Food Programme
UN Refugee Agency
CARE International
The Salvation Army


Myanmar cyclone death toll soars past 22,000 May 6, 2008

Filed under: Natural Disasters — gervmaine @ 9:05 am
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YANGON, Myanmar – The cyclone death toll soared above 22,000 on Tuesday and more than 41,000 others were missing as the international community prepared to rush in aid after the country’s deadliest storm on record, state radio reported.

Up to 1 million people may be homeless after Cyclone Nargis hit the Southeast Asian nation, also known as Burma, early Saturday. Some villages have been almost totally eradicated and vast rice-growing areas are wiped out, the World Food Program said.

Images from state television showed large trees and electricity poles sprawled across roads and roofless houses ringed by large sheets of water in the Irrawaddy River delta region, which is regarded as Myanmar‘s rice bowl.

“From the reports we are getting, entire villages have been flattened and the final death toll may be huge,” Mac Pieczowski, who heads the International Organization for Migration office in Yangon, said in a statement.

Myanmar’s military regime has signaled it will welcome aid supplies for victims of a devastating cyclone, the U.N. said Tuesday, clearing the way for a major relief operation from international organizations.

But U.N. workers were still awaiting their visas to enter the country, said Elisabeth Byrs of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

“The government has shown a certain openness so far,” Byrs said. “We hope that we will get the visas as soon as possible, in the coming hours. I think the authorities have understood the seriousness of the situation and that they will act accordingly.”

The appeal for outside assistance was unusual for Myanmar’s ruling generals, who have long been suspicious of international organizations and closely controlled their activities. Several agencies, including the International Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders, have limited their presence as a consequence.

Allowing any major influx of foreigners could carry risks for the military, injecting unwanted outside influence and giving the aid givers rather than the junta credit for a recovery.

However, keeping out international aid would focus blame squarely on the military should it fail to restore peoples’ livelihoods.

Some aid agencies reported their assessment teams had reached some areas of the largely isolated region but said getting in supplies and large numbers of aid workers would be difficult.

Shari Villarosa, the top American diplomat in Yangon, told NBC’s “Today” show that the cyclone had knocked huge trees in the country’s largest city.

“And it blew down a significant portion of them, some of these are 6, 8, 10 stories tall — huge trees, 6 feet, 5 feet in diameter. So they came down on roofs,” she said.

The cyclone came only a week ahead of a key referendum on a constitution that Myanmar’s military leaders hoped would go smoothly in its favor, despite opposition from the country’s feisty pro-democracy movement. However, the disaster could stir the already tense political situation.

State radio also said that Saturday’s vote would be delayed until May 24 in 40 of 45 townships in the Yangon area and seven in the Irrawaddy delta, which took the brunt of the weekend storm. It indicated that the balloting would proceed in other areas as scheduled.

The decision drew swift criticism from dissidents and human rights groups who question the credibility of the vote and urged the junta to focus on disaster victims.

Myanmar’s generals have hailed the referendum as an important step forward in their “roadmap to democracy.” It offers the first chance for voters to cast ballots since 1990, and the probability is high they will approve the constitution — a legal framework the country has lacked for two decades.

But critics, including the United Nations, the United States and human rights groups, question whether it will lead to democracy.

Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962. Its government has been widely criticized for suppression of pro-democracy parties such as the one led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for almost 12 of the past 18 years.

At least 31 people were killed and thousands more were detained when the military cracked down on peaceful protests in September led by Buddhist monks and democracy advocates.

Washington has long been one of the ruling junta’s sharpest critics for its poor human rights record and failure to hand over power to a democratically elected government.