In the Eye of the
Myanmar (Burma) Cyclone:
A Firsthand Account
May 2008

by James Whitlow Delano

[EDITOR'S NOTE: While Burma was officially renamed Myanmar in 1989 by the country's military junta – a name now used by most media outlets, including The Digital Journalist – many outsiders defiantly continue to use Burma as an expression of opposition to the repressive junta. The author, James Whitlow Delano, is one of them.]

Three days of driving rain had already begun to ruin the dry season rice harvest, leaving the crop under water, before I returned to Yangon from Bago on the day the cyclone struck.

I was in Myanmar (Burma) entirely by chance, working for a South Korean client on a documentary on the lives of two men living in exile since the 1988 crackdown. I was photographing places and things that represented their lives in Burma.

Then the storm turned everything on its head.

Just hours before the cyclone arrived, a steady stream of brand new, Chinese-made military trucks blasted their horns, bullying all manner of traffic from bicycles to 50-year-old Hino timber trucks out of their way so that they could speed toward a military base. I would later see a line of them entering outside the former capital.

There was vague gossip on the street about a cyclone in the seas south of Burma but not until I was checked into my Yangon hotel, and able to receive CNN, did I realize that a Category 4 storm was about to bear down on Yangon and the low-lying Irrawaddy River Delta. Myawaddy, one of the Burmese television stations, had not forecast that such a severe storm was going to make a direct hit on Burma.

By midnight, the windows of the hotel room rattled violently. I got up and taped the large one and opened the two moveable ones a crack to equalize air pressure. By 2 a.m., trees could be heard snapping in two and tumbling down, some of them a century or more old. At dawn, a wicked wind but little rain sent sheet metal panels, torn from rooftops, and outdoor adverts flying like newspapers but trailing sparks down the street. By the time I got downstairs, the wind had completely changed direction, intensified, and sent curtains of stinging rain horizontally. In the blinding rain, I sheltered behind a pillar outside the hotel attempting to shoot one frame at a time, then dry off the entire camera and try again. I looked downwind. A street sign 6 feet wide (2 m) and 3 feet high (1 m) shuttered suddenly and then a gust sent it frantically flying into infinity, never to be seen again. It simply disappeared.

I remember thinking throughout this storm how people sheltering in their flimsy bamboo houses would surely not survive in the Irrawaddy Delta if this storm was punishing a relatively high-sitting concrete city so brutally.

Over the next six days, I would make my way south every day. First I simply took a small boat across the river from the city but later I would travel right down to the core of the Irrawaddy Delta where the 12 foot-high (4 m) storm surge, not the wind, claimed the most lives.

The Burmese people, ever resourceful, were on their own. Mostly, soldiers were restricted to clearing trees in the former capital. Few were to be seen down in the delta and none of those soldiers, that I saw, were distributing food or water. They were clearing trees and debris.

I wrote the following account after travelling by boat to the worst affected part of the delta. Now, in large part because of what the few of us reported seeing in the Irrawaddy Delta, the military has erected roadblocks to keep foreign eyes out.

I went down with two photogs to a town called Pyapon, about 60 miles (90 km) from Yangon, that we had visited the day before. We rented a boat and headed straight in the direction of the sea, which is less than 10 miles (15 km) south.

By simply crossing over to the other side of the river, we were able to identify the first body, blown up and bloated in the scorching midday sun.

At first villagers pointed out bodies. We asked if they knew these people, left discarded on the beach. They said that they did not know these people who had been washed up the river from villages closer to the sea and in the path of the storm surge.

Within 30 minutes we had counted over 30 bodies. Most were women and three were children. One child, no more than 2 years old, had a length of twine tied to its ankle, suggesting its mother's vain attempt not to be separated from her beloved child. It had failed.

We left the boat and climbed up to a village named Nawpyando. The houses were shattered. People had died from their village too.

Water had reached a level of 5 feet (1.4 m) and people had climbed up high into their houses hoping to survive, praying that their houses held together. Most of the people in this village had survived, though they were still listless from the trauma of the storm.

Women would still do their washing of clothes in the river, where bodies of the dead humans and animals bobbed. Drinking water had to be obtained back in the town.

They appeared to have rice but not much else. No help, from the government, had arrived.

[AUTHOR'S POSTSCRIPT: "I may not be able to return after this series is seen because it poses some tough questions about the true nature of a government that already had a reputation for brutality. Now, you see neglect. If that is the price for reporting this – so be it. I would wear the honor of being on their blacklist with honor (though I would be happy too if I could return again)."]

blog comments powered by Disqus

© James Whitlow Delano

James Whitlow Delano has lived in and documented Asia for a decade and a half. His work has been awarded internationally, from the Alfred Eisenstaedt Award (from Columbia University and LIFE magazine), Leica's Oskar Barnack Award, Picture of the Year International, Photo District News and others. Delano's series on Kabul's drug detox and psychiatric hospital was awarded 1st place in the 2008 NPPA Best of Photojournalism competition for Best Picture Story (large markets). His first monograph book, "Empire: Impressions from China" (Five Continents Editions), and work from "Japan Mangaland" have been shown at several Leica Galleries in Europe and "Empire" was the first ever one-person show of photography at La Triennale di Milano Museum of Art in Italy. His second monograph book, "I Viaggi di Tiziano Terzani" (Vallardi / Longanesi), has just been released. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic Books, GEO, Newsweek, Mother Jones, Time Asia, Internazionale, Le Monde 2 and others.

To see more of James' unique work, visit his Web site:

Also, revisit his previous Digital Journalist features: "Taming the Yellow Dragon" from our May 2007 issue:
and "Empire: Impressions from China" from January 2005: