By Mark Chamberlain, Communications Officer
Martin was six when his small bamboo home in Myanmar’s southwestern jungle was blown away by a terrifying 145mph tropical storm.
I ask him what he remembers most from that night and the small, talkative boy is quiet for a few seconds, then smiles nervously: “I couldn’t hear other people calling out or crying, I could just hear the screaming voice of the wind.”
In minutes, houses where generations of people had lived were snatched from the ground and splintered across the land. Essentials like food, money and clothes were thrown into the nearby river and for miles across the land. Countless people were killed. In one village down the river, one out of every two were taken by the wind.
“It was dark and the wind was all around,” Martin says of that Friday in 2008. “My dad picked me up from our home and ran and ran. We didn’t know where to go or where to hide, but we went to the school.”
Myanmar – the country formerly known as ‘Burma’ – faces small, localised cyclones every year. But nothing on the scale of Cyclone Nargis. Martin’s family, like many others in the village, ran in that May darkness, but they didn’t know where to or what to do when they arrived at their destination. Rebecca Murphy, CAFOD’s disaster risk reduction expert says: “This is the key moment when the initial effects of a disaster can be managed. So many lives can be saved just by ensuring a community has access to an early warning system, knows where to go and what to do when a cyclone hits.”
Myanmar was just not ready for Cyclone Nargis. Media and official reports at the time note the death toll to be over 138,000, making around 2.4 million people homeless and costing the country around £9.3 billion.
Caritas Myanmar – our Church partner in the area – has been working with Martin’s family and people throughout the village to equip them with the skills, knowledge and equipment to stand the best chance of surviving the next storm. “Effective early warning systems and regularly practiced emergency drills are incredibly important,” states Ms Murphy. “Early warning systems provide access to vital information that help people to understand the risks they face. Alongside these, community action groups help families and villages to prepare for risks by packing emergency kits, building food or grain stores to withstand the storm, and saving money so they are better able to come to terms with what happened and to recover.”
Martin runs to his home, the ever-present smile on his face replaced by an expression of intense concentration. The drill is underway. He no longer wants to talk with me. The village leader holds a megaphone: a cyclone is coming. The path that leads from the jetty to the church quickly becomes busy. The noise of feet. Voices. Ordered evacuation. Four young men carry a wounded woman to the church. A group of children runs down the village path. I see Martin in amongst them. I smile at him, but while he sees me, he is concentrating on the task in hand. He wears a backpack that he’s been taught to pack by a teacher in his school. It contains essentials such as noodles, candles, medicine and a blanket – all the things he has been told that will help to save him during the storm. Tarpaulin is put up and the villagers shelter underneath it. They’re counted and small children are given a snack. A rope ladder is thrown up the church tower and children climb it, while weaker members of the community are carried up. This is where the people will climb to when the water that follows a cyclone breaches the village. During Nargis the water reached 12ft. So during the drills, the people climb 20ft up the tower for safety.
These drills are performed regularly, so each person knows where to go and when. And it means children younger than Martin, like those who run alongside him, understand how to save their own lives and those of their families.
“Early warning systems and evacuation drills help people to understand the environmental risks they live with,” explains Ms Murphy. “They also help them to effectively prepare themselves, physically and mentally.
“Knowing what to do before, during and after a disaster is essential for building a village’s resilience to a storm. Importantly, it saves lives and helps to preserve, in many cases, a community’s way of making a living and it will ultimately help with the wellbeing of those affected.”
I watch as Martin climbs down from the church tower. His face changes back to the boy I met a few hours ago – happy, laughing, joking with friends. I truly believe that with the knowledge and surety he has shown today, he has a future that isn’t free from the physical damage and destruction cyclones can bring, but rather it isn’t burdened by the terrible psychological scars a disaster can etch on survivors’ lives.
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Mark’s blog was also published in The Catholic Times.
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