LABUTTA, Myanmar – Some survivors arrived half-naked, others wore clothes they scavenged from the dead.
Myanmar’s rice-trading town of Labutta, the only spit of high ground in a vast watery landscape, has become a beacon of hope for tens of thousands who lived through the cyclone’s fury, most losing homes and family members.
The survivors made the journey in rickety wooden boats with makeshift sails fashioned out of blankets, dodging the bloated corpses of buffaloes and dead neighbours floating in the murky waters.
It was a journey from horror to misery for most, who described desperate hours clinging to trees and debris, followed by days of waiting for aid to arrive in a video done for The Associated Press by a Myanmar journalist.
The footage provided a first glimpse of Myanmar’s worst-hit Irrawaddy Delta, which has been cut off from the rest of the world since cyclone Nargis struck Saturday, unleashing nearly four-metre-high storm surges that flooded the low-lying area of rice paddies and bamboo homes.
“I was hanging from an 18-foot-tall (five-metre) coconut tree for a long time until the weather subsided. I don’t know what happened to my wife and young children,” said Phan Maung, 55, sobbing as he spoke.
Many survivors were shaking and had trouble telling their tales. Some were angry, others hysterical. Only a few were willing to give their names, fearful of retribution by a government already embarrassed by its failure to bring prompt relief.
“I am the only survivor of a family of 11. The entire village was wiped out,” said a man from the village of Yay Way.
Nearby, a woman in her 50s stared ahead in shock as she spoke. “The wind came first and the waves started to roll over us, so that we had to crawl over the thatch walls to get to the upper floor of the house. I saw people drowning and dead bodies floating,” she said.
More than 60,000 people were killed or are missing in the densely-populated delta, which sits just above sea level, and as many as 100,000 are feared dead.
Meteorologists say the storm, which gathered strength in the Bay of Bengal and whipped up 190 km/h winds, took an unusual track heading eastward into the densely populated delta region where a quarter of the nation’s population live.
Jim Andrews, a senior meteorologist at AccuWeather, said that satellite photos taken after the storm showed flooding of similar magnitude to that of hurricane Katrina. He said water covered thousands of square miles in the Irrawaddy Delta, although it was unclear how deep the water was.
“It’s a similar kind of land to New Orleans … an intricate network of tidal creeks and openings that allow easy access for a powerful storm surge to penetrate right into populated land,” said Andrews. “The impact was maybe the same order of magnitude as hurricane Katrina….”
The survivors in Labutta indicated that roughly two-thirds of the people in their villages had perished.
“About 1,000 people live in my village, only about 300 people survived. All the houses are gone,” said a resident of Kwa Kwa Lay. A village headman said only about 100 of 500 people had survived in his submerged town.
Food, clean water and medical supplies were in short supply in Labutta where some survivors resorted to drinking coconut milk.
Those who made it arrived in boats filled to overflowing with survivors from the 51 surrounding towns and villages, most now under water. But each day there were fewer boats, partly because fuel supplies were disappearing.
They plied through stinking waters, past bodies tangled up in mangrove trees and flattened thatch-roofed houses.
Labutta, located in a township with a population of 209,000 before the cyclone hit, was battered by the storm, its communications tower was knocked over, the spires on Buddhist pagodas were broken, windows were shattered. Debris was piled on the streets and roofs were torn off. But many buildings were still standing and helping hands awaited the new arrivals.
Hundreds of people were taking shelter at the Aung Daw Mu temple, where the monks were seen making places for newcomers to sleep and drying out blankets as children scurried about. A private charity group, the Free Funeral Service Society, had set up a couple of big woks nearby to cook for the people.
“Aid still hasn’t arrived,” said 38-year-old Khin Khin Mya. “My mother, children and husband got separated … Every day I wait for the rescue boats, hoping to see them at the jetty.”
The town hospital was devoid of first aid supplies, medicine or other medical equipment, and no doctors were in sight. Desperate relatives tended to the injured with rusty sewing needles and thread.
A man lay moaning in a makeshift bed, his leg crushed and foot torn off when he got caught between two boats. “There is no help and there is nothing we can do except waiting here for him to die,” said his friend.
Another man with a deep gash in his head had leaves and twigs embedded in his skull.
Back at the jetty, people peered at the horizon, waiting for the next rescue boat to arrive.
“I want to try to help as many people as I can, but there isn’t enough fuel to carry survivors,” said one boat operator, Maung Hyay, whose vessel lay idle.
Nearby, a man distributed soup to all comers. About 30 people gathered around. “Everyone please come and eat,” he shouted. “Come, come, you need energy.”