May 4, 2008 / 2:40 AM / 12 years ago

Cyclone turns Myanmar city into "war zone", 4 dead

YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar’s military government declared disaster areas in five states on Sunday after a Category 3 cyclone tore through the Irrawaddy delta region, killing at least four people in Yangon, state newspapers said.

Damage from Cyclone Nargis is seen in central Yangon on May 2, 2008. REUTERS/Democratic Voice of Burma/Handout

Packing winds of 190 km per hour when it hit on Saturday morning, Cyclone Nargis devastated the former Burma’s leafy main city, littering the streets with debris from fallen trees and battered buildings.

“Utter war zone,” one Yangon-based diplomat said in an email to Reuters in Bangkok. “Trees across all streets. Utility poles down. Hospitals devasted. Clean water scarce.”

Many roofs were ripped off even sturdy buildings, suggesting damage would be severe in the shanty towns that sit on the outskirts of the sprawling river-delta city of 5 million people.

“I have never seen anything like it,” one retired government worker told Reuters. “It reminded me of when Hurricane Katrina hit the United States.”

Although the sun was shining by Sunday morning, the former capital was without power and water.

An Electricity Board official said it was impossible to know when services — hit-and-miss at the best of times in one of Asia’s poorest countries — would be restored.

“It is very hard to say when we can resume supply. We still have to clear the mess,” the official, who did not want to be named, said.

United Nations disaster experts said it would be days before the extent of the damage was known in a country ruled since 1962 by secretive and ruthless military regimes.

Bunkered down in Naypyidaw, a new capital 240 miles to the north of Yangon, the ruling generals will almost certainly have avoided the worst of the storm.

“There does not seem to be a high number of casualties but for sure there is a lot of damage to property and infrastructure,” Therje Skavdal, regional head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), said.

“It’s early and it will take a few days before we get an overview of the damage,” he told Reuters in Bangkok.

Another United Nations official said a formal offer of assistance had been made although the junta was yet to respond.

DEATH TOLL SEEN RISING

Outside Yangon, the damage appears to have been severe.

More than half of buildings had been damaged or collapsed in some towns in the Irrawaddy delta, where the massive cyclone landed on Friday night having gathered steam in the tropical waters of the Bay of Bengal, official newspapers said.

The death toll — so far just four people in Yangon — is expected to climb as authorities slowly make contact with outlying towns and villages along the coast, where weather forecasters had predicted a storm surge of up to 3.5 m.

Official media said four vessels sank in Yangon harbour.

It remains to be seen what impact the storm will have on a referendum on an army-drafted constitution scheduled for May 10.

The charter is part of a “roadmap to democracy” meant to culminate in multiparty elections in 2010 and end nearly five decades of military rule. Critics say it gives the army too much control.

An official at Yangon International Airport said all incoming flights had been diverted to the second city of Mandalay, in the middle of the southeast Asian nation, and all departures from Yangon had been cancelled.

Thai Airways in Bangkok said flights would not resume before Monday.

Nargis is now moving northeast into northern Thailand, where it has already caused heavy rain and triggered storm warnings.

Additional reporting by Khettiya Jittapong and Darren Schuettler in BANGKOK

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