Storm victims still suffer in Myanmar
May 13, 2008
A local physician hopes people in Summit County will help with the monumental task of feeding and sheltering 1.5 million cyclone survivors in Southeast Asia.
Estimates of the death toll in Myanmar jumped to more than 30,000 amid warnings of "malign neglect" by the military rulers, who have governed the isolated nation with an iron fist for more than five decades, according to the Associated Press.
"Look at (Hurricane) Katrina and see how difficult it was, even for our government, to respond effectively. Despite our money and political will, and everything else, we still could not do a whole lot for a few days," said John Hanrahan, a physician who lives in Silver Creek. "It would have been far, far worse if it had been in a Third World country."
Last week, Summit County residents gave about $3,000 to the group ShelterBox, which is helping deliver aid to Myanmar.
"These folks are just huddling on dry plots of land hoping someone is going to come help them," Hanrahan said, adding that the death toll from the storms could reach 100,000. "People are out there without water and without food and they’re getting sick from dead bodies floating around. They’re desperate."
Massive storm surges from the sea and 120 mph winds pounded Myanmar May 3. ShelterBox is delivering self-contained survival containers equipped with blankets, sleeping bags, tents, water-purification tablets and tools to help cyclone victims stay alive.
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Each plastic box serves 10 people, weighs 120 pounds and costs $1,000, Hanrahan explained.
"This is a huge catastrophe and we can do some help here," Hanrahan said.
He personally has vetted ShelterBox to ensure the group is legitimate, Hanrahan added.
After the physician spoke at the Pangea Day film festival Saturday at the Eccles Center, those in the audience gave $400 to ShelterBox, said Teri Orr, executive director of the Park City Performing Arts Foundation.
"They were people who wanted to give, and could give and did give," Orr said Monday. "This is a really small planet and if we don’t know we are all connected, then we will become permanently disconnected."
Myanmar’s military rulers are deeply suspicious of the American government, which has long been one of the junta’s biggest critics because of human rights abuses and its failure to hand over power to a democratically elected government.
"This government is creating serious problems," Hanrahan said, adding that officials in Myanmar have refused to let some aid in. "They are finally letting in some of the organizations, of which ShelterBox is one."
Other western Summit County residents have also pitched in to help.
"The richest nations of the world have an obligation to the poor. We don’t have it to keep it, we have it to be shared," said Bob Bussen, a priest at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Park City.
Because ShelterBox is based in Britain, Bussen said the group has the wherewithal to withstand political hurdles the United States has faced trying to help cyclone victims.
"Unquestionably, we have to help. In terms of how to help, that is a separate and important question While Americans are extraordinarily generous, sometimes our aid isn’t well received and has to be channeled differently," Bussen said.
The pastor said he personally donated money to ShelterBox.
Suffering ‘we can’t begin to imagine’
News of the devastating cyclone saddened Snyderville Basin resident Donna McAleer, whose globetrotting took her to Myanmar in 2002.
"When you encounter these people and you’ve had an opportunity to be there, it becomes much more personal to you," McAleer said. "[Myanmar] is not a country that, quite honestly, a lot of Americans even know about The suffering, we can’t even begin to imagine."
McAleer is a board member for the group Journeys Within Our Community, which is a nonprofit in Cambodia started by Park City High School alum Brandon Ross.
"Our hearts go out to the kind and beautiful people we know throughout [Myanmar,]" Ross said in a prepared statement. "We know from experience that we can change lives and that is our goal Through worldwide donations, we can help prevent more death and destruction and help the people of Myanmar recover and rebuild their lives."
McAleer said she is "a big believer in thinking globally and acting locally."
"If everybody just made one sacrifice for a week — giving up Starbucks for a week could damn near provide food for four for a month," McAleer explained in a telephone interview.
Though international assistance has started trickling in, the few foreign relief workers allowed entry into Myanmar have been restricted to the largest city of Yangon. Only a handful succeeded last week in getting past checkpoints into the worst-affected areas, reported the Associated Press.
"Politics always injects itself into situations," Bussen said. "In this particular case, for reasons that I don’t know that we’re particularly respectful of, the Myanmar government is very protective and the military junta seems rather closed to the outside world."
The deadly storms ravaged the heavily populated Irrawaddy delta, which helps supply much of Myanmar’s rice, Bussen said.
"I can’t imagine this huge delta being washed away and people being washed away. Where do you go? You’re talking about flatlands," Bussen said. "You don’t go to a high point. There aren’t any."
Visit shelterbox.org or journeyswithinourcommunity.org to learn more about helping victims of the cyclone in Myanmar.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.