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A cyclone's aftermath

Postcards from Myanmar, one year after the devastation of Nargis (and as a new cyclone approaches).

THE IRRAWADDY DELTA, Myanmar — Tropical cyclone Bijli is menacing South Asia, picking up speed over the warm waters of the Bay of Bengal. Packing hurricane force winds and heavy rains, the storm is expected to make landfall Saturday near the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Bijli approaches almost a year after the powerful cyclone Nargis killed more than 100,000 people, the worst natural disaster in Myanmar's recorded history.

On that dark day Ma Gan, nine months pregnant, ran from the raging storm and her collapsing home to take shelter in her neighbor’s water tank. Two days later, in a collapsed reservoir, baby Nargis was born into a world freshly ravaged, devoid of clean water, stripped of its harvest and shrouded by the fog of lives and homes lost.

Ma Gan, along with many others who had escaped the harrowing clutches of cyclone Nargis (after which Ma Gan's baby was named) on May 2, 2008, spent the following days in the huddled company of family and neighbors beneath whatever structure was left standing.

It would be days before any sign of help would signal the outside world’s acknowledgment of their predicament. During this time people ate the soggy, salinated remains of their rice harvests and drank water from canals teeming with decomposing bodies.

“After four or five days well-wishers came by with cars and dropped food and clothes on the road,” said Nu Myint Kyi, the owner of the land where Ma Gan and nearly 30 others took shelter after the floods. Myanmar aid groups and wealthy nationals distributed some relief to the victims, but those supplies didn’t last long, and most aid stopped after 10 days. “We survived on coconuts for weeks after that,” Nu Myint Kyi said.

The international response to cyclone Nargis was staggering. Countless countries pledged millions of dollars and supplies, and even sent tankers piled with food and other essentials into the delta. But due to heavy restrictions on international aid and, some would say, the iron-willed xenophobia of Myanmar’s ruling junta, it took foreign aid groups more than three weeks before they could distribute the rice, water, garlic, fish paste, clothes and various other necessities.

After a lengthy bureaucratic process and pressure from various organizations, the checkpoints began to open.

Ma Gan and her neighbors, situated in an accessible location adjacent to the main road leading from Yangon to Bogale, were on the receiving end of the first attempts at assistance. Not everyone was so fortunate — especially those who reside within the complex web of canals and tributaries comprising the Irrawaddy Delta.

Accessible only by boat, these villages were the hardest hit by the vast influx of water the cyclone created. And ironically, they were among the last to be reached by relief efforts. “After the storm, for 20 days, we had to survive off of coconuts and some soaked rice,” said Beh Saw Oo, a resident of Chong Sein Gi, a small river village south of Bogale where 300 of the 700 inhabitants were swept away during the storm.