By Reeni Amin Chua and Stephen Ryan in Kuala Lumpur
U Soe Naing, second-in-command officer for the Red Cross brigade of Kyaukphyu Township, will never forget the telephone call he received from Myanmar Red Cross Society headquarters on 20 October 2011. The caller on the other end of the line told him that a big storm was likely to hit his township in the coming days. Only his months of training in disaster preparedness helped U Soe Naing respond calmly to the information.
Immediately, his brigade, volunteers and villagers who have been trained in disaster preparedness and risk management got to work alerting neighbouring communities about the risk of an approaching storm. Getting their urgent message out was not easy; all possible means of communication and modes of transportation were used, sometimes needing volunteers to travel to remote areas by foot. Together, they also helped to evacuate villagers from areas at risk to safer locations.
Cyclone Giri made landfall in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state as a category four storm on the night of 22 October, bringing with it heavy rains and huge tidal surges of up to eight metres above normal water levels in some coastal areas. Many townships, especially Kyaukphyu, Myebon, Minbya and Pauktaw were severely affected. The cyclone caused heavy damage to houses and infrastructure including roads and bridges. In total, 45 people lost their lives and over 250,000 people were affected, with over 20,300 houses completely destroyed.
Community preparedness saved lives
Although Cyclone Giri was the most intense storm to ever hit Myanmar, casualties were relatively low compared to the six cyclones which struck the country in the past five decades. The most devastating, Cyclone Nargis, claimed over 138,000 lives in 2008. A disaster on the scale of Nargis was avoided, due in part to early warning alerts, evacuation efforts and preparation activities undertaken by the local Red Cross branches. “Thanks to the collective efforts of the villagers, local authorities and the Red Cross, there was no casualty in our township,” said U Soe Naing.
Myanmar’s long coastline along the Bay of Bengal is considered to be highly vulnerable to cyclones. Out of the six major cyclones that have hit Myanmar in the last five decades, five passed through the western Rakhine region.
The Myanmar Red Cross Society, with the support of the IFRC, has been prioritizing the training of communities living in areas at risk. A total of 65 facilitators have been trained in the Rakhine state over two years, and an additional 390 villagers have been trained by these facilitators. Bernd Schell, head of the IFRC’s office in Myanmar commended the efforts of the National Society in working together with local communities. “It was gratifying to witness the systems and mechanisms that have been put in place over the last few years workingm,” he said. “When put into action during this cyclone, they undoubtedly saved many lives.”
Volunteers at the heart of the response
The Myanmar Red Cross Society’s volunteers also played a crucial role in the immediate aftermath of the cyclone. Together with the public authorities, they provided search and rescue assistance, first aid and cared for the evacuees who were living in temporary shelters. The Red Cross also established communication links between villagers displaced by the disaster and their relatives throughout Myanmar. “These Red Cross volunteers selflessly put the needs of others ahead of their own concerns. They were at the heart of the response,” said Schell.
Despite the efforts of communities and the Red Cross, many suffered greatly during and following the cyclone. Daw Ma Win, a 60 year-old widow, lost almost everything when Giri swept through her township. The unstoppable force of the cyclone swept both her home and livelihood away. “I received a family kit from the Red Cross which included tarpaulin sheets and other necessary items for me,” said Daw Ma Win. “All the kitchen utensils will be used at home. For that I don’t need to ask help from my son,” she added, with smile on her face. She now lives with her youngest son, however one of her greatest challenges is finding a way to make a living again.
Six months on, looking to the future
Six months after Cyclone Giri made landfall, the Red Cross remains committed to helping those whose lives were devastated by the cyclone to get back on their feet. Shelter and livelihoods have been identified as the top needs for the people affected by the storm.
Bernd Schell said the Red Cross in Myanmar gained a vast amount of experience during the three-year operation following Cyclone Nargis. “We know that responding to disasters is not enough, instead we must help communities to build their own resilience, which is why the recovery phase following Cyclone Giri is so important.” Although Myanmar will undoubtedly suffer weather-related disasters in the future, the Myanmar Red Cross Society will continue to involve communities in disaster preparedness and response, and use the lessons learned from each challenge as an opportunity to improve.
The Cyclone Giri operation delivered by the Myanmar Red Cross and IFRC was generously supported by the European Commission Humanitarian Office (ECHO).