Cyclone Nargis hits Myanmar, shock felt at Knox
12-foot tidal waves hit the coast of Myanmar, the country where Knox student Caitlin Tegenfeldt grew up, and where her family is currently living.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, was hit by a level 3 cyclone Saturday, which ripped up the coast and left many homeless in the Irrawaddy delta region and on the outskirts of towns. More than 22,000 have been killed in the storm, with many more predicted to pass if foreign aid is kept out. Among the most pressing issues are the spread of disease due to unsanitary conditions and a lack of clean water.
Sophomore Caitlin Tegenfeldt is from the capital, Yangon, and her parents and brother are currently living there. Her parents work for HOPE International Development Agency division in Myanmar. They were not injured, as her house is made from wood and brick and has a metal roof, though part of the roof was ripped up. The windows of their house were blown out, and a piece of sheet metal from a nearby roof flew into the house. Her family “stayed in the hallway under the stairwell,” said Tegenfeldt.
“I knew that [the storm] would be bad, but I thought it would be a level one and I knew my family had been preparing,” she said. “[My mother] had made sure to stock up on everything she would need.” But the storm turned out to be more intense than was predicted, with winds of up to 150 mph. “They’re not at all prepared for what just happened,” she said.
“I saw pictures on the news and I recognize some of those places,” said Tegenfeldt.
Tegenfeldt described her neighborhood’s reaction as a sort of “do-it-yourself FEMA,” as people were outside with machetes and handsaws cutting and moving trees out of the way of traffic.
“It’s called a city of trees. I guess we didn’t understand how important that was until all the trees were down,” she said.
After the storm her family lost Internet access.
“There’s no way for them to find out what’s going to happen next,” said Tegenfeldt.
Monday night Tegenfeldt was finally able to send her parents an e-mail and could talk to them by phone on Tuesday. Tegenfeldt’s father’s office is located in the UNDP office in town. In order to contact her he would have to go there to charge his cell phone and would send out pre-typed e-mails from Tegenfeldt’s mother via the satellite internet connection in the NGO office.
“I was going crazy forwarding their e-mails,” said Tegenfeldt, who received e-mails of support from old classmates and her parents’ old co-workers, offering their help.
At Knox Tegenfeldt said, sometimes “I feel like a news reporter.”
Her classmates will ask her many questions about issues in Myanmar that are very personal issues for her. It is hard for her to give out details.
Tegenfeldt’s parents have prepared a team of 50 people that left for the Delta region to provide aid. The team includes doctors and organizers psychologically prepared to deal with the devastation. The team operates out of “buses set up like an emergency room to treat people,” said Tegenfeldt. They are carrying seven days worth of medical supplies and food to help the region.
Currently there is little known about how hard the area was hit.
“The goal right now is to go out there and assess…get an idea of what they’ll need,” said Tegenfeldt.
Tegenfeldt is very proud of what her parents are doing and wants to go into development work herself.
“It’s tough because in a sense I almost wish I was there with them,” said Tegenfeldt.
Tegenfeldt is critical of the government’s handling of the storm.
“There are rumors the big guys took everything and ran up to the north,” said Tegenfeldt, alluding to the alternate capital, Naypyidaw.
“I really wish the government would more readily accept aid from other nations… At this point there isn’t really anything to be embarrassed with. Let people in — they want to help. [They’re] more focused on helping the people in need right now than changing the regime,” said Tegenfeldt.
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