The devastation visited on Burma on May 6 by the cyclone known as Nargis is too vast for the human mind to comprehend. The official toll at press time was 22,000 dead and 42,000 missing, but the number of deaths is expected to reach above 100,000 when the count is completed. Hundreds of thousands of survivors cling to life amid the wreckage of their country, scrounging for food and clean water while they wait for rescue workers to fight through the ruins.
The scope of the tragedy is so vast that we strain to grasp its meaning. We think of the tsunami that took a quarter-million lives in that region in 2004. But that was a tidal wave rising from the ocean and inundating coastal villages in countries across half a continent. This week’s disaster was a single whirlwind that swept through a single nation of 52 million and touched nearly everyone there.
Meteorologists described the cyclone as a Category Three tropical storm — out of a possible five — with winds of up to 120 miles per hour. That puts it roughly on a par with Hurricane Katrina, the Category Three hurricane that struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005 and left some 1,800 dead.
Katrina shocked us at the time, because its death toll was so much higher than other recent American storms of similar strength. Hurricane Hugo, a Category Four storm that struck Florida and the Caribbean in 1989, left 76 dead. Hurricane Andrew, which reached Category Five strength with winds up to 163 miles per hour in 1992, took 26 lives.
Katrina’s toll, of course, was blamed on a confluence of unusual circumstances, including the surprising path of the storm, poor maintenance of the New Orleans levees and, most famously, dismal emergency response by government at all levels.
Identifying a culprit in the Burmese disaster is not quite so convenient, but the cause is easy enough to pinpoint: poverty. Poverty places the coast dwellers of South Asia in rickety homes that collapse on their heads with the first strong wind. Poverty creates water systems that break down and sewage systems that burst open in a heavy rain. Poverty builds roads that turn to mud, rendering speedy rescue impossible.
Poverty kills the children of Asia and Africa every day in a slow agony of hunger and disease. We know this, but we do not see it or feel it, and so we do not act. The great storms speak to us more directly. If we listened, we would surely act, and many lives would be saved.