The death toll from the cyclone that battered Myanmar last weekend rose above 22,000 yesterday, with at least 41,000 missing as the international community prepared to rush in aid, state radio reported.
A news broadcast on government-run radio said that 22,464 people have now been confirmed dead from Cyclone Nargis, which tore through the country’s rice bowl and biggest city of Yangon early on Saturday.
Of the dead, only 671 were in Yangon and its outlying districts, state radio said, confirming Nargis as the most devastating cyclone to hit Asia since 1991, when 143,000 people died in Bangladesh.
“More deaths were caused by the tidal wave than the storm itself,” Minister for Relief and Resettlement Maung Maung Swe told a news conference in Yangon, where food and water supplies are running low.
“The wave was up to 12 feet [3.5m] high and it swept away and inundated half the houses in low-lying villages,” he said, giving the first detailed description of the weekend cyclone.
“They did not have anywhere to flee,” he said.
Earlier, Foreign Minister Nyan Win said on state TV that 10,000 people had died just in Bogalay, a town 90km southwest of Yangon.
Information Minister Kyaw Hsan said the military were “doing their best,” but analysts said there could be political fallout for the military rulers, who pride themselves on their ability to cope with any challenge.
“The myth they have projected about being well-prepared has been totally blown away,” said political analyst Aung Naing Oo, who fled to Thailand after a brutally crushed 1988 uprising. “This could have a tremendous political impact in the long term.”
Relief efforts for the stricken area, mostly in the low-lying Arrawaddy (Irrawaddy) River delta, have been difficult, in large part because of the destruction of roads and communications outlets by the storm.
In the cyclone’s aftermath, state radio reported that the government was delaying a constitutional referendum in areas hit hardest.
Saturday’s vote on a military-backed draft constitution would be delayed until May 24 in 40 of 45 townships in the Yangon area and seven in the Arrawaddy delta, the radio said.
The report indicated that the balloting would proceed in other areas as scheduled.
The UN World Food Programme (WFP), which was preparing to fly in food supplies, offered a grim assessment of the destruction: up to 1 million people possibly homeless, some villages almost totally destroyed and vast rice-growing areas wiped out.
“We hope to fly in more assistance within the next 48 hours,” WFP spokesman Paul Risley said in Bangkok. “The challenge will be getting to the affected areas with road blockages everywhere.”
Based on a satellite map made available by the UN, the storm’s damage was concentrated over a 30,000km2 area along the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Martaban coastlines — less than 5 percent of the country. But the affected region is home to nearly a quarter of Myanmar’s 57 million people.
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.
Richard Horsey, Bangkok-based spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid, said the airport closest to the delta region was in Yangon.
“For those places accessible by land, there will be cars and trucks from those areas to meet at the halfway point with vehicles from Yangon,” he said. “For remote areas, assessment teams and assistance teams will need to go by helicopters and boats.”