Red Cross Emergency Response to Myanmar Cyclone Nargis

  • By Tha Hla Shwe

Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar on 2 and 3 May 2008, coming into the delta region from the Indian Ocean. It was a cyclone of Category 3 to4 intensity never before experienced in Myanmar. The full force of the cyclone was felt in Ayeyarwady and Yangon Divisions, with the storm crossing directly over Yangon city. The greatest strength and impact of the cyclone was felt in Ngapudaw, Bogale, Labutta, Mawlamyinegyun townships, while Pyapon, Dedaye, and Kyaiklat townships in Ayeyarwady Division. Kungyangone, Twantay, Kawhmu and Kyauktan townships in Yangon division were also devastated. The damage was the result of wind, water and storm surge coming in together. The storm surge was reported to be as high as 7 meters in some places. The greatest damage and loss of lives were observed in the rural villages, with some small villages of less than 100households being completely swept away in the storm surge. The loss of lives were less in large villages and urban areas where there were more permanent structures, but the damage to houses and properties remained high, going up to 95% in some areas. The official figures
on 2 July 2008 reported 84,537 people dead, 53,836 people missing, 19,359 injured and 1,064,623 people displaced. According to Myanmar Red Cross Society (MRCS) assessment teams’ reports the number of affected people stood at 2,895,842.
Disaster Preparedness
MRCS received Nargis Cyclone alert on the evening of 29th April 2008 at 8 pm. The Disaster Management (DM) division of MRCS informed Red Cross branches in Rakhine, Ayeyarwady, Yangon and Bago divisions immediately. The instructions given were: toalert local people about the impending cyclone; to respond to cyclone if necessary in cooperation with local health and administrative authorities; to prepare relief supplies as ready-to-send cargo; to keep in contact with MRCS head quarters (HQ) by phone or through designated contact persons.
Starting from 30th April, preparations were made at MRCS HQ to form Assessment Teams (AT), with people who have had training in Regional Disaster Response Team (RDRT) training abroad as team leaders. Relief supplies available in Yangon MRCS warehouses were prepared to be able to send them out to required areas quickly. On 2nd May afternoon Dr Tun Myint, MRCS Executive Committee member in charge of DM, together with Ms Bridget Gardner, Head of Delegation, International Federation of Red Cross & Red CrescentSocieties (IFRC), attended a meeting with United Nations (UN) agencies to plan possible responses to the Nargis Cyclone as necessary.
Disaster Response
Disaster Assessment
MRCS Executive Committee members and staff, together with delegates from IFRC, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), French Red Cross (FRC) and Danish Red Cross (DRC), started planning from Day1 of the cyclon (3rdMay 2008) to send assessment teams to the affected areas as soon as possible. Five teams were formed with Red Cross (RC) staff and volunteers (RCV), those being trained as Regional Disaster Response Team (RDRT) leading them. They were sent out on 4th May morning – two teams to Ayeyarwady Division, one team to Yangon Division, oneteam to Bago Division, and, one team to Kayin and Mon States.
The teams met with township local authorities, RC supervisory committee members and community members collecting data relating to number of buildings damaged; number of families/people injured, missing and deaths; status of existing health infrastructure; etc., according to Disaster Assessment and Needs Assessment (DANA) format. They also visited some villages for assessment. The reports were phoned in daily and also in person and were completed by 7th May 2008.

Disaster Monitoring
A monitoring room was set up at the MRCS HQ with the FRC delegate, who have had experience in disaster management, leading the activities. The team compiled the reports from the field and fed the data to the Operations Management Team (OMT) day to day.
Operations Management
The operation was managed by the MRCS fulltime EC member in charge of Disaster Management (DM) together with the counterpart from IFRC. The OMT initially made plans to assist 30,000 families in the disaster affected area on 6 May 2008. This was revised to 100,000 families on 16 May 2008 after reviewing the assessment reports from the MRCS assessment teams. The operations planned to provide assistance in three phases:
Phase 1 – Short term phase, 0 to 6 months. This phase is concerned with rescue, relief and early recovery activities in the later months for the affected people. The focus will be on meeting survival needs of the affected people, on preventing and controlling outbreaks of communicable diseases and on scaling up to meet the needs of large target population while laying ground for early recovery.
Phase 2 – Medium term phase, 6 to 12 months.This phase will put emphasis upon providing recovery support to strengthen the resilience of the most vulnerable people in the cyclone affected areas while enhancing the operational efficiency and effectiveness of MRCS public services, volunteer base and branch structures.
Phase 3 – Long term phase, 12 to 36 months. There will be inputs to strengthen rehabilitation and Disaster Risk Reduction through the development and expansion of community-based programmes and activities while conducting ongoing assessment to identify and support households not achieving recovery.
The operation is being carried out by 258 MRCS staff together with 21 – 30 expatriate delegates from IFRC,DRC, FRC, Malaysian Red Cross, Singapore Red Cross, Indonesian Red Cross, American Red Cross, British Red Cross, German Red Cross, Austrian Red Cross, Australian Red Cross, Korean Red Cross,
Japanese Red Cross, among others. They are helped in the field by over 2000 Red Cross Volunteers (RCV), including volunteers from Kachin, Mon, Mandalay, Magway, Shan (South) branches and also from non-affected townships in Ayeyerwady Division.
Rescue & Relief work
Rescue work started from the very first day of the cyclone with the RCVs out on the streets of Yangon in the rain and winds helping the victims. The RCVs were removing fallen trees blocking the roads, helped disaster affecter affected people to find appropriate shelters, helped injured persons, giving first aid and referring them to hospitals or nearest health centres. They were not only recruiting blood donors but also donating blood as the need arises.
The RCVs were also instrumental in providing relief supplies to all of the affected areas. These volunteers have tried to reach the most remote villages, sometimes at their own peril and had to be told not to take risks. Up to middle of September 2008, 56 relief items, including tarpaulins, shelter tool kits, kitchen sets, hygiene kits, etc., were distributed to 236,100 families or over 1 million vulnerable people in the affected areas.
A total of 8 water purification equipment, producing 5000 – 20000 litres per hour, were established in Bogale, Labutta, Mawlamyainggyun and Dedaye townships. Two 1000 litre water tanks were also set up in Kyaiklattownship, while a total of 8 ponds were cleaned of salt water in Kyaiklat and Dedaye townships. These units were donated by German, Australian, Austrian, French and British Red Cross Societies together with technicians and experts who set up these machines and help train MRCS staff and RCVs.
In the later part of the relief phase, Psycho¬social Support Programmes (PSP) and Restoring Family Link (RFL) activities were included in the work of RCV teams. The activities are now planned and implemented by MRCS staff stationed at 9 “Hubs” or MRCS Nargis Rehabilitation Offices set up in the most affected townships assisted by local RCVs. These “Hubs” are required to collaborate and coordinate their activities with the local authorities, other Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO), International NGO and United Nations agencies working in the areas.
Challenges met by the MRCS
1. Difficulty in reaching villages especially inremote areas (boats required to gain access to many villages).
2. Difficulty in communicating, sending/ sharing information between townships and HQ.
3. Need for more water purification (WATSAN) facilities especially in village tracts and villages.
4. Developing human resources for disaster risk reduction, especially among local RCVs and retaining them.
5. Meeting needs for livelihood and emergency financial needs of affected people.
Future Plans of MRCS for Cyclone Nargis Recovery and Rehabilitation phases
MRCS have identified 13 priority townships from the affected townships in the Ayeyarwady and Yangon Divisions based upon criteria specified for worst hit areas. MRCS is now in the process of assessing and selecting approximately 150 most vulnerable village tracts out of 1912 village tracts in the affected areas. Each village tract, on the average, consists of 5 – 15 villages bringing the total to approximately 1000 villages. The following Recovery and Rehabilitation work will be carried out in all villages of the selected village tracts.
Activities to be carried out for the selected villages/households after needs assessment will include:
1. Distribution of relief items will continue for families not receiving any items as yet or to those families which has not achieved satisfactory recovery.
2. Setting up communication facilities like early warning system together with other telecommunication facilities.
3. Capacities building of local RCVs in towns and villages for disaster risk reduction have been carried out with the aim of these RCVs helping local population acquire knowledge and skills in disaster risk reduction activities.
4. Continue providing WATSAN facilities up to village tract levels.
5. Provide or help in primary health care services, especially those fitting the capacity of RCVs.
6. Continue and expand PSP and RFL activities with Partner National Societies (PNS) and, or, international and local organizations.
7. Provide support for food security and livelihoods of the identified affected families which may include supply of livestock, grains, seeds, fertilizers, fishing boats, nets, basic equipment for cottage industries and household jobs like tailoring, hair dressing, etc.
8. Consideration for small financial loans if possible.
9. Renovate or build and equip some Rural Health Centres, the numbers to be based upon available resources.
10. Strengthen some existing buildings which can be used as ‘safe havens’ in time of disasters or build RC training centres cum disaster shelter, based upon available resources.
MRCS has responded to its fullest capacity during the relief phase of the operation with help from many PNS, IFRC, and ICRC, the three components of the Red Cross Movement, together with the participation and involvement of the local Red Cross Volunteers (RCVs). MRCS will also carry out the recovery and rehabilitation activities together with these partners. All of the activities would not be possible without the RCVs who really are the “Heroes” of MRCS response. These RCVs are the sons and daughters of people in the communities and they should take pride in producing such humanitarian workers. The author would like to pay tribute to them through this article.
Thank you RCVs for all of your selfless humanitarian work in responding to the cyclone.
If can foster the Volunteering Spirit in a person And show the merits he/she can gain If I can prevent that Spirit from fading I would not have been a Red Cross President in vain
Tha Hla Shwe President Myanmar Red Cross Society 2014 September.

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