Cyclone Nargis, 10 years on

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Children in Myint Tan village, Bogale township, sit on some fishing nets.

Ten years ago, on May 2, Cyclone Nargis hit the coast of Myanmar and left a trail of destruction in its wake. Most of the nearly 140,000 casualties lived in the Ayeyarwady Delta, where bamboo and wood huts offered little protection against the raging winds and storm surge. In Labutta and Bogale townships alone, Nargis killed 80,000 people and left tens of thousands homeless.

Though more shelters are being built in anticipation of another cyclone, not everyone has received enough access to help and donations, while the emotional struggle is still clear, as seen in Bogale, where a ceremony was held recently on May 2 in tribute to the victims.

“The water quickly rose to this level,” said Daw Hla, 61, of the some 100-household Kyaun Day Yae village in Bogale, pointing at a mark more than 1.5 meters above water level on a wooden pillar in her home.

“Everything got washed away by the floods. Our TV, our beds, our clothes…only our Buddha shrine remained. We had no idea at the time that it was a cyclone. We didn’t get any warning. We just thought the water was rising to exceptional level and it would pass.”

Her younger brother died aged 40 in the cyclone, but her daughter, one-month-old at the time, survived. “I remember crying every day, and being so hungry. CARE foundation was the first one to reach us, and they gave us water, clothes and shelter.”

Daw Hla occasionally tells her children and grandchildren about the cyclone, and how they built the house again around that same wooden pillar. Every time radio announcements forecast strong winds, she becomes anxious. “I always have a bag full of essential stuff. I’m always ready to run.”

Thu Zaw Lwin sits at her mother’s sewing machine, with her sisters and aunts in the background.

Daw Hla, who lives with one of her daughters, Thu Zaw Lwin, said the village has begun to grow again. Her sewing business has also grown, adjusting clothes donated by NGOs so that they fit locals. One dress brings up to 3,000 kyats, she says, adding, “It’s not what I would probably make in a city like Yangon, but it pays for what we have. And we get more clients than before Nargis, now that we are known for our sewing skills.”

Ma San San Maw (left) and her mother in their home in Chaung Wa village.

“Since the cyclone, this village has got a lot richer,” said Ma San San Maw, whose husband Ko Aung Aung is one of the village’s 50 fishermen.

About an hour away by boat from Kyaun Day Yae, Chaung Wa village in Bogale has a prosperous feel, with big new houses shining under the sun and neighbors gathering after a day of fishing.

When the Myanmar government reached Chaung Wa one day after Nargis landed, 4,000 villagers had already been killed by the cyclone. Government workers arrived by helicopter and provided food, water and supplies to the survivors, most of whom had lost their homes.

“We had to stay in our small fishing boat for 20 days before we could build another house,” Ma San San Maw reflected. “Now we own a big boat, thanks to the help we received to start over.”

(L-R) Residents of Chang Wa village Ko Naing Tun Latt and Ko Ta Naing inspect the local school.

Nargis destroyed Chang Wa school, which was reconstructed with bamboo using funds from the Red Cross Myanmar. But after two years, the structure weakened and residents added concrete walls; now they are considering changing the roof.

Red Cross Myanmar second assistant officer Ko Zaw Oo has helped organize up to four evacuation trainings per year in villages surrounding Bogale. “Our drills are as lifelike as possible,” he said, presenting photos of the training in Myint Tan village. “Some villagers unaware of the activities even get scared and run away.”

Red Cross Myanmar has built up to 40 shelters in the region over the last five years, with funding from France, Japan and Malaysia. “I don’t know the exact capacity of the shelters, nor the villages’ total population, but I am sure we have enough [shelters] and the villagers we train are as ready as they can be for the next cyclone.”

Like a decade ago, fishing and rice farming drives the economy of Myint Tan. Most residents say they need money to improve roads leading to their shelter and their village, and to buy drinking water from nearby villagers instead of drinking boiled river water.

 Words and photos by Ludivine Paques

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