The worst natural disaster in the long history of Myanmar was caused by the ominously named Very Severe Tropical Cyclonic Storm Nargis — conveniently abbreviated to Cyclone Nargis – that struck in 2008. After forming over the Bay of Bengal in late April, Nargis was initially forecast to hit southeastern India or Bangladesh. Instead it wandered past causing relatively minor damage in Sri Lanka (4,500 people left homeless by floods), before gaining strength and approaching Burma with a well-defined ‘eye’ surrounded by winds gusting to 215 kph (135 mph).
When Nargis made landfall, the storm was at peak force. It struck the Ayeyarwady Division of Burma – formerly the Irrawaddy Division and consisting of that river’s extensive low-lying delta. This is one of Myanmar’s most populous areas where much of the country’s vital rice crop is grown. Nargis then moved east across Burma as it quickly weakened, but the devastation left behind by this super-destructive cyclone was fearsome, with catastrophic impact on the lives of 1.5 million people.
The disaster was compounded by the initial reaction of the isolationist Burmese government, which failed to mount a significant relief effort and – worse still – categorically refused to admit outside aid agencies or take any support from countries that offered help. With many tens of thousands of people killed by the storm and the intense flooding that followed, this brutal rejection of its stricken citizens’ needs undoubtedly caused a significant increase in the number of fatalities. When aid was eventually accepted, the junta still obstructed the process and refused to admit journalists and TV crews who could have confirmed the massive scale of death and destruction caused by Nargis. As it is, the number of dead will never be known, because the authorities feared negative publicity and deliberately failed to make an accurate count.
When: May 2 2008
Where: Myanmar (known as Burma until the ruling military junta changed the name in 1989)
Death toll: Unknown. Estimates range from 150,000 dead all the way up to the one million plus that would make Nargis the world’s deadliest cyclone.
You should know: Nargis was the first named storm of the 2008 North Indian Ocean cyclone season and the chosen name belied this awesome storm’s destructive nature. Nargis is the Urdu word for daffodil.