As Cyclone Nargis tore its way through Myanmar earlier this month, Santa Barbara-based Direct Relief International quickly leapt into action.
Wary of the storm’s awesome power – the category four cyclone was capable of 165-mile-per-hour winds and devastating storm surges – the nonprofit group swiftly organized relief efforts to help the affected Burmese. The organization amassed thousands of dollars in aid, medical supplies and pharmaceuticals. At the time, the Myanmar state-run news media reported that 350 had been killed.
Three weeks later, an estimated 80,000 are dead and aid is just now trickling in. DRI, which committed $500,000 to the Myanmar relief effort, has struggled to even obtain visas from the country’s authoritarian military junta, DRI spokesman Jim Prosser said.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to have a staff member be able to get a visa,” Prosser said. “He’s in Thailand right now and will visit the country starting Wednesday.”
DRI is not alone in the problems it has had with the Myanmar government – according to reports from the Associated Press and other news agencies, the junta has refused to let the vast majority of foreign aid enter the country since the cyclone. Relief officials told the New York Times that the country had received only 20 percent of the supplies needed.
Since DRI operates by providing existing local programs and facilities with funding and medical supplies at the time of crisis, Prosser said the Myanmar government’s handling of the situation has hurt the non-profit’s efforts.
“Last week, contrary to assurances we had, funds were rerouted by the government and we are currently trying to change the logistics of that,” Prosser said. “It is not in our partners’ hands, but we hope it will be soon.”
However, in the past few days, medical assistance and relief groups from surrounding countries have been granted access, and Prosser said DRI is making steps toward achieving its goals in the affected region.
“The first priority is to work with the Myanmar government to get our shipment out of the confiscated pile and back into our trusted partners’ hands,” Prosser said. “From there [our staffer] will be meeting with other existing organizations to get a more accurate assessment of inflowing aid from these other sources. We’re not the only ones providing aid and we need to see what the whole picture is.”
But Prosser said DRI is confident and has a large sum of money waiting to aid the Burmese survivors.
“We’ve committed $500,000 for relief effort and we’ve already sent out $143,000 in cash grants to trusted partners working in country and in Thailand along the border for refugees and assistance for those that have been displaced by the event,” Prosser said. “Additionally, there is $200,000 of material assistance on a wholesale basis.”
Although three weeks have passed – and another natural disaster in Asia has eclipsed Cyclone Nargis in news coverage – Prosser said relief work in Myanmar is far from over. As of May 16, he said, 55,917 people were still missing and 650,000 had already been evacuated.
“We’ll be responding to this for years,” Prosser said. “It’s not just the immediate needs – from displaced people to standing water and the water-borne diseases that come with that. We need to rebuild resources, infrastructure and health care. Myanmar didn’t have a good health care system on a good day – we need to help with that.”
Private individuals, businesses and organizations provide funding for DRI’s relief efforts, as opposed to government grants. In a press release, Thomas Tighe, DRI president and CEO, said the assistance of these groups is essential to the distribution of supplies in Myanmar and other locations across the world.
“It’s important to remember the complete story of the humanitarian effort directed at Myanmar starts with the people and organizations that provide the supplies that will be used on the ground,” Tighe said. “It’s their generous contributions that enable us, and the field clinics we work with, to help more people.”