YANGON, Myanmar - The first international aid official allowed into the cyclone-devastated Irrawaddy delta by Myanmar's military leaders described towns rendered unrecognizable, thousands of survivors without shelter in heavy rains and local volunteers saving lives.
Bad weather has contributed to the suffering of survivors and hampered rescue efforts since the May 3 storm, and the Joint Typhoon Warning center said Wednesday another cyclone was forming in the region.
Amanda Pitt, a spokeswoman for the United Nations humanitarian relief program, couldn't say where the landfall would be or when it would become a full-fledged cyclone. But she said the chances of another cyclone were good.
Soldiers have barred foreign aid workers from reaching survivors in the areas hardest hit by Cyclone Nargis, but gave access to an International Red Cross representative who returned to Yangon on Tuesday.
"People who have come here having lost their homes in rural areas have volunteered to work as first aiders. They are humanitarian heroes," said Bridget Gardner, the agency's country head.
The ruling junta has been blasted by aid agencies for refusing to allow most foreign experts into the delta and not responding adequately to what they say is a spiraling crisis.
Relief workers also reported some storm survivors were being given spoiled or poor-quality food rather than nutrition-rich biscuits sent by international donors, adding to fears that the ruling military junta in the Southeast Asian country could be misappropriating assistance.
Threat of disease escalating
U.N. officials warned that the threat was escalating for the 2 million people facing disease and hunger in low-lying areas battered by the storm unless relief efforts increased dramatically.
Eleven days after the tempest, reaching the worst-affected areas was getting more and more difficult.
Checkpoints manned by armed police were set up Tuesday on roads leading to the Irrawaddy River delta and all international aid workers and journalists were turned back by officers who took down their names and passport numbers. Drivers were interrogated.
"No foreigners allowed," one policeman said after waving a car back.
However, Gardner, the Red Cross expert, and her assessment team were able to visit five locations in the Irrawaddy delta. In one of them, 10,000 people are living without shelter as rain continued to tumble from the sky.
"The town of Labutta is unrecognizable. I have been here before and now with the extent of the damage and the crowds of displaced people, it's a different place," Gardner was quoted as saying in a statement by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
In Labutta and elsewhere she said volunteers were giving medical aid to hundreds of people a day even though "they have no homes to go back to when they finish."