A night at the Orphanage with Cyclone Nargis

This post is an account of a night spent at Safe Haven Orphanage on the Thailand Burma border as Cyclone Nargis passed by North West of us. If you would like to make a donation to the victims of the Cyclone inside Burma – please do so at Givetoburma.org.

Last week I headed to Mae Sot for a few days to conduct a training course and catch up with some friends. On Saturday, five of us decided to hire a pick-up truck and head 150KM North up the Thailand/Burma border to Safe Haven Orphanage.

It had poured down in Mae Sot at about 2am on Saturday morning, and the rain showed no sign of abating. We arrived at Safe Haven at about 3pm on Saturday, and dashed between muddy puddles for the nearest house to avoid another soaking.

Tasanee and the children from Safe Haven Orphanage moved onto their new land shortly before Christmas. The land is located next to the river marking the border between Thailand and Burma, and when I made the trip there with my sister during our motorbike epic last December, Tasanee was frantically directing the assembly of the first wooden house so that the children could move in by Christmas.

This time, there were 4 or 5 mainly wooden Karen-style structures in various stages of completion – the beginning of a new settlement. All the buildings were raised on wooden stilts, with leaf & bamboo roofs.

Cyclone Nargis path map - Thailand & Burma

At about 4pm on Saturday afternoon the rain really started hammering down, and seemed to be flying past the valley sides with an almost horizontal trajectory. We didn’t think too much of it at this point – it was more of an inconvenience because it meant we couldn’t play with the children outside. Looking for something to do, we decided to head into the neighbouring village to buy some sweets for the children, and 15 minutes later discovered the road we had entered the village by had been blocked by a falling tree and power lines it had brought down.

We eventually found an alternative route out of the village, and back to the Orphanage. As we pulled onto the orphanage land, we were forced to brake violently as two or three live electricity cables had fallen blocking the entrance. We left the truck where it was, and careful to avoid the cables, walked the remaining 100 metres back onto the land. Tasanee greeted us with her usual grin – looking like a mildly psychotic Batman with her waterproof poncho flying out behind her – “No Electric City!” she exclaimed.

At this point I’m sure we all thought we’d rather be somewhere else other than stuck in a field 150KM away from Mae Sot, with darkness approaching and caught in a rapidly worsening storm. The shelter/hut that that had been designated ours for the night was about 5 metres long, wooden, standing on stilts and with only 3 walls. We quickly huddled there whilst some of the older orphanage boys clambered on the leaf roof trying to secure it with additional bamboo poles. It seemed that it was only a matter of time before one of the increasingly violent gusts of wind removed the roof entirely.

As the winds increased, and sheets of corrugated iron were hastily hammered onto the hut to strengthen it further, I started looking more closely at the rain passing the neighbouring hills. Having been a keen sailor, I estimated that the winds were probably approaching storm force 10 on the Beaufort Scale. This roughly translates as 55-63mph. I have no doubt that during some of the larger gusts the wind speed would have been approaching Hurricane force.

As night fell, we huddled in the hut by candle light as the winds howled past outside. Numbed by a couple of drinks, we fell asleep, only to be woken a few hours later by a large family of goats sheltering underneath us.

On Sunday morning we headed back to Mae Sot – the sun had come out again, and the only reminder of the previous night’s storm was the stream of road workers who were cutting and dragging all the fallen trees from the road. This only lasted for about the first 50KM south of the orphanage, at which point the damage seemed less obvious.

As we arrived in Mae Sot, we soon heard the news that a tropical Cyclone had hit Burma and there were an estimated 230 deaths. My first thought was that if the Burmese regime were publicly declaring 230 deaths – the actual figure would end up many, many times higher. Sadly it seems that the death toll is soaring and now stands at 22,000 dead and 41,000 missing (BBC news) with some media organisations speculating that it could end up as bad, or even worse than the 2004 Tsunami.

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