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'All my 28 family members have died'

APTOPIX Myanmar Cyclone
The government has said that 10,000 people perished and 95 percent of the homes were destroyed in Bogalay. On Friday, the smell of rot and death was in the air from the bloated carcasses of water buffaloes and other animals.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The 68-year-old fisherman tried to explain how a cyclone swept away his entire family, but could utter only a few words before he was overcome by tears.

"All my 28 family members have died. I am the only survivor," sobbed Thein Myint, whose flimsy house was torn apart when Cyclone Nargis sent powerful waves surging from the sea.

Thein Myint's village is in a devastated belt around Bogalay, one of the worst-hit towns, located some 20 miles from the Indian Ocean in the Irrawaddy delta.

Residents struggled Friday to make their way down what was once the busy main street in Bogalay, where the government has said an estimated 10,000 people perished and 95 percent of the homes were destroyed. The smell of rot and death was in the air from the bloated carcasses of water buffaloes and other animals.

Debris, rubbish and branches from downed trees littered the streets, while the skeletal remains of buildings were the only sign of the large structures that once lined the road.

Survivors — most from large extended families common in rural Myanmar — described the incomprehensible: being left alone to combat hunger, illness and wrenching loneliness after watching relatives washed out to sea.

"We huddled together, but the big trees carried by the waves knocked down two of my children and my wife," said Htay Maung, 70, speaking softly at a large Buddhist monastery where many others had also taken shelter.

When the winds first sprang up, and the storm surge rose higher, he, his wife and four children climbed to the roof of their house and clung to each other.

"Only two of my children survived," Htay Maung told an Associated Press reporter who reached the town via car from the main city of Yangon, a trip of more than 100 miles that took about five hours because of flooding and downed bridges.

Survivors spoke of entire villages being obliterated by the cyclone, which struck May 3 with 120-mph winds that unleashed 12-foot-high storm surges and left vast expanses of the densely populated delta submerged under flood waters.

'We knew that the storm was coming'
More than 65,000 people are dead or missing in the region, with fears the death toll will top 100,000. But with roads completely under water in the worst-hit areas directly on the Andaman Sea, there are vast expanses of delta where aid workers have yet to gain access.

Many rice crops also were washed away in the region, which is Myanmar's major producer of the staple, adding to worries about the future.

"The cyclone has hit before harvest," said Felix Leger, the country director of Action Against Hunger, as relief supplies started arriving under military supervision.

But even as soldiers unloaded sacks from a helicopter and a sole truck in Bogalay, children cried out in hunger and some adults complained that authorities were only distributing sodden, fermented rice.

Huddled together, survivors recalled storm warnings that came too late or without any instructions on what to do.

"We knew that the storm was coming, but we didn't know how dangerous or deadly it would be, so as usual I told the children to stay indoors," said one of the men sheltered in open-sided sheds in the large monastery compound.

"We heard of the storm warning around 1 p.m., and the cyclone came five hours later," added another.

'They were washed away'
Bogalay residents said the warnings came via a public address system in the town, but written notices were dispatched by boats to the surrounding villages, which suffered far more when Nargis struck.

With shelter almost nonexistent in some areas, many survivors were living under four or five coconut palm leaves they tied together, surrounded by stagnant, fetid pools of water.

They used soft drink cans to catch rain water for cooking what little rice they could salvage; some tried to dry sodden unhusked rice beside the road.

One man displayed his naked back, red and raw from the lashings of broken branches and fallen tree trunks sent hurtling by the wall of flood water.

Bodies have been cleared from the streets of Bogalay and repairs have begun on roofless houses and damaged infrastructure. Workers hauled utility poles and corrugated iron sheets for roofing.

Thein Myint, the broken fisherman whose eight children were among 28 relatives washed out to sea, did not seem to care about repairs and restoration, or even money.

Money "is useless to me now, without my family," he said as he ate rice mixed with boiled banana shoots. "They were washed away."