Cyclone Nargis left over 138,000 people dead and tens of thousands injured, and 2.5 million homeless. It was the worst natural disaster ever in Myanmar (Burma). The Labutta Township alone was reported to have 80,000 dead, with about 10,000 more deaths in Bogale. There were around 55,000 people missing and many other deaths were found in other towns and areas, although the Burmese government's official death toll may have been underreported, and there have been allegations that government officials stopped updating the death toll after 138,000 to minimize political fallout. The feared 'second wave' of fatalities from disease and lack of relief efforts never materialized. [Source: Wikipedia]

Most of the victims were killed by the 12-foot (3.5 meter) wall of sea-water that hit the delta along with the Category 4 cyclone's 190 kph (120 mph) winds. About 84,500 bodies were found and confirmed dead over 53,000 more were never seen again. One estimate cited in Wikipedia listed 53,836 missing, with 84,537 confirmed dead.

Describing a boat trip through the Irrawaddy Delta after the storm, U Ko Ko wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Bodies floated in the water along the Tontay Canal as a passenger ship sailed by. An old woman on the vessel cried when she saw them. "A lot of bodies have been floating along the river every day, a young crewman on the ship told passengers as he pointed towards the bodies. The ship was sailing towards Bogalay, one of the towns most severely hit by the cyclone.” Bogalay is about 140 kilometers southwest of Yangon.

“A woman on the ship, Ma Khin Hiaing, 40, told U Ko Ko with tears in her eyes: “My niece came to my house and informed me my father, mother and all my sisters and brothers had been washed away by storm water. He said here was nothing. I collapsed when I heard the news.” Another survivor said, “People died not because of the strong storm, but due to the high tide that was like a tsunami.” A witness said, “Bodies most of them children are still hanging in the trees, they have not been buried yet.”

Labutta was particularly hard hit. By one count 31,229 people lost their lives there. Three quarters of the villagers in Pyinsalu were killed. An estimated 21,104 people died there. One survivor told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “My parents were killed by Nargis.” another said, “I lost my relatives in Nargis, but I’ve little chance to grieve." Thein Myint, a 68-year-old fisherman who wept while describing how the cyclone swept away the rest of his family, told AP. "All my 28 family members have died. I am the only survivor."

Associated Press reported: “Entire villages in the Irrawaddy delta were still submerged from the storm, and bloated corpses could be seen stuck in the mangroves. Some survivors stripped clothes off the dead. People wailed as they described the horror of the torrent swept ashore by the cyclone. "I don't know what happened to my wife and young children," said Phan Maung, 55, who held onto a coconut tree until the water level dropped. A spokesman for the U.N. Children's Fund said its staff reported seeing many people huddled in roughly built shelters and children who had lost their parents. "There's widespread devastation. Buildings and health centers are flattened and bloated dead animals are floating around, which is an alarm for spreading disease. These are massive and horrific scenes," Patrick McCormick said at UNICEF offices in New York.[Source: Associated Press, May 11, 2008 =|=]

According to Associated Press: “UNICEF estimates that a third of those killed were children, based largely on population data from the affected areas. Reports from the delta tell of village upon village ruined by the storm waves. Scores of families were killed and chilling photos show the bodies of dead children. "Our figures in the camps show a lot of adults, but very few children and very few elderly," said CARE Australia's country director in Burma, Brian Agland. "The worst-case scenario is that a lot of children may have lost their lives because of drowning," said CARE Australia's country director in Burma, Brian Agland. "In one village there were 500 survivors and they were all adults. So that's the kind of despair people are living with, wondering where their children are." [Source: AP, May 13, 2008]

Why the Cyclone in Myanmar Was So Deadly

Cyclone Nargis first headed toward India. As projected, the storm took a sharp turn eastward. But it didn't follow the typical cyclone track, which leads to Bangladesh. Instead, the cyclone swept into the low-lying Irrawaddy River Delta in central Myanmar. Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground, told Associated Press, "The easterly component of the path is unusual," Masters said. "It tracked right over the most vulnerable part of the country, where most of the people live." He called it "one of those once-in-every-500-years kind of things." [Source: Michael Casey, Associated Press, May 8, 2008]

When the storm made landfall at the mouth of the Irrawaddy River, the cyclone's battering winds pushed a wall of water as tall as 12 feet (3.7 meters) some 25 miles (40 kilometers) inland, laying waste to villages and killing tens of thousands. Most of the dead were in the delta, where farm families sleeping in shacks barely above sea level were swept to their deaths. Almost 95 percent of the houses and other buildings in seven townships were destroyed.

Ken Reeves, director of forecasting for, told AP the Irrawaddy Delta "is huge, and the interaction of water and land lying right at sea level allowed the tidal surge to deliver maximum penetration of sea water over land," Reeves said. "Storms like this do most of their killing through floods, with salt water being even more dangerous than fresh water."

Despite assertions by Myanmar's military government that it had warned people about the storm, critics contend the junta didn't do enough to alert the delta and failed to organize any evacuations, perhaps resulting in unnecessary deaths. "Villagers were totally unaware," said 38-year-old Khin Khin Myawe, interviewed in the hard-hit delta town of Labutta. "We knew the cyclone was coming but only because the wind was very strong. No local authorities ever came to us with information about how serious the storm was."

Labutta, Ground Zero for Cyclone Nargis Devastation

About 60 percent of those who died and went missing—about 80,000 especially— were concentrated in the Labutta area, and most of the victims are thought to have been women and children. The United Nations estimated that up to 40 percent of the total dead were children.

By one count 31,229 residents of Labutta town lost their lives there. The region had 148,200 hectares of paddy land before Nargis and only 76,040 afterwards. The municipal area at the most southern part of the delta embraced 13 wards, 50 villages and 496 small villages with a population of about 200,000 people. Hospitals, schools and offices buildings were destroyed. So many farmers and draft animals were killed there was not enough man and animal power to farm the land despite there being half as much arable land as there was before the disaster.

The survivors in Labutta told Associated Press that roughly two-thirds of the people in their villages had perished. "About 1,000 people live in my village, only about 300 people survived. All the houses are gone," said a resident of Kwa Kwa Lay. A village headman said only about 100 of 500 people had survived in his submerged town. [Source: AP, May 7, 2008 /=]

"I was hanging from an 18-foot-tall coconut tree for a long time until the weather subsided. I don't know what happened to my wife and young children," said Phan Maung, 55, sobbing as he spoke. Many survivors were shaking and had trouble telling their tales. Some were angry, others hysterical. "I am the only survivor of a family of 11. The entire village was wiped out," said a man from the village of Yay Way. Nearby, a woman in her 50s stared ahead in shock as she spoke. "The wind came first and the waves started to roll over us, so that we had to crawl over the thatch walls to get to the upper floor of the house. I saw people drowning and dead bodies floating," she said. /=\

Death and Destruction from Cyclone Nargis in Bogalay

Reporting from Bogaley, U Ko Ko wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “All of its rice paddies and rice were destroyed. All the houses were either blown over or had their roofs ripped off. The Bogaley area includes more than 70 villages and 13 wards At least 80 percent of the town was damaged by the storm. Buildings that remained standing were turned into emergency shelters and relief camp centers.”

The Washington Post reported: “Two months after a cyclone savaged the fertile Irrawaddy Delta, in Burma's southwest, the bones of drowning victims still clutter the muddy banks of waterways. The riverbanks form a cemetery for cyclone victims whose bodies floated for weeks along the waterways and whose remains, at low tide, now whiten in the mud. A boatman pointed to an empty stretch of riverbank interspersed with bare-branched betel and coconut trees. "That used to be a village," he said. "There, too," he said minutes later, gesturing at the opposite bank. [Source: Washington Post , July 6, 2008]

The New York Times reported from Bogale: “Six days after a cyclone churned through the coastal plain of Myanmar, the smell of rot and death was in the air here, part of a single district where the military government says 10,000 people died. It is difficult to assess the actual human toll, even in a landscape of toppled trees and houses and bloated farm animals that resembles the devastation of the 2004 tsunami, which killed 181,000 in Asia. Along the 70 miles of road — the only one — from Yangon to Bogale, there was not a single human body visible. Still, aid groups and the few reporters in the country have had little access to some of the areas that were reportedly hardest hit, especially directly on the Andaman Sea. [Source: New York Times, May 10, 2008 ]

“And people spoke of villages wiped off the map, the damage tallied not by the dead but by the survivors, so few they were easier to count. In the village of Day Da Nam, 33 miles from Yangon, residents said the remains of 28 farmers killed by the storm were still floating in the falling floodwaters. Thein Tun, a 44-year-old bus driver who is out of work because all the buses were destroyed, said food was scarce and the well water was contaminated.

“But the water has not completely pulled back to the sea. It is brackish, a problem for humans, but not so much for rice: A little salt, they say, does not hurt the plants. The more long-range problem is that many farmers have no seeds. “Everything is gone with the wind,” said Zaw Win, a farmer in Leyaim, a half-hour drive from the city limits of Yangon. His rice reserves, which would have lasted him until November, were blown and washed away by the storm. The main crop is normally planted in May and harvested in November.

“Htayl Lwin counts himself lucky that no one from his family died. In the days after the storm, several bodies floated past his house. Mr. said the areas affected worst were along the coast. In one village, Kyme Kyoung, only two people survived. The police were limiting access to that area.

Destruction from Cyclone Nargis in an Irrawaddy Delta Village

Kenneth Denby wrote in The Times, “To see the condition to which Kawhmu has been reduced you would think that its people had enough to worry about. But among all the devastation that has rained down on the village one thing preoccupies them above all. It is not the toppling of the trees and the inundation of the fields, or even the destruction of their simple houses, which lie like broken crates along the road through the Irrawaddy delta. The object at which everyone points is the gleaming Buddhist pagoda which towers 80ft (25m) above the village. The top ten feet, the spire and vane and gilt umbrellas that symbolise the attainment of nirvana, have been lopped clean off. [Source: Kenneth Denby, The Times, May 8, 2008 +|+]

“During a four-hour drive through the Irrawaddy delta yesterday, that was the most striking among many remarkable sights: towering above the wreckage of Cyclone Nargis, dozens and dozens of decapitated golden pagodas. As the crow flies, Kawhmu is only 25 miles (40km) south of the former capital, Rangoon, but in the level of destruction and the absence of significant aid, it is another world. +|+

“The cyclone smashed windows and tore up roofs in the city, but the brick and concrete houses survived. In those poor townships where homes were destroyed, foreign aid is being distributed. But in the houses in the delta, the sturdiest part was the bamboo posts which supported walls and roofs of palm leaf and flimsy corrugated iron. Most were stripped to their skeletons in last Saturday’s storm; none has escaped intact. The storm surge which drowned tens of thousands closer to the coast caused less human damage here. +|+

“But the rain and wind have turned what used to be a bustling village into a sodden shantytown. That is apart from the other damage. Fallen telephone lines lie along the road for miles on end, or dangle across it from toppled poles. There is no electricity apart from that supplied by a handful of private generators. And, just as alarming in a devoutly Buddhist and very superstitious country, there are the pagodas, their tops blown off, their jewels and orbs scattered to the winds. +|+

Destruction from Cyclone Nargis in Remote Delta Villages

The Washington Post reported: “ During the storm, 26 entire families vanished, a man named Soe he said. None of their bodies has been recovered. The rest of the villagers clutched floating wreckage or grasped at tree trunks or piled into a leaking boat and fled to a monastery in a distant village. Field workers have discovered about 12,000 survivors in 60 villages across the area, all of them almost entirely wiped out. An estimated 20,000 people died. [Source: Washington Post , July 6, 2008]

“The region was among the worst-hit because it lay directly along the path of the cyclone. But environmental experts say a more significant reason for the high death toll, here and elsewhere in the delta, was the systematic destruction of mangrove forests. In the December 2004 tsunami that devastated South Asia, dense mangrove coverage in Sri Lanka was shown to have helped save lives.

“According to a study published last month by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, decades of illegal encroachment and government-sanctioned neglect had seriously degraded the mangrove forests in the Irrawaddy Delta. "If there had been decent mangrove on the shorelines, the death toll would have been cut in half," said Lucas Riegger, a U.N. vulnerability analyst and mapping specialist.

Entire Burmese Villages Swept into Sea by Cyclone Nargis

AFP reported: “Haunted survivors emerging from the devastation of Burma's ravaged southwest say entire families were wiped out when Cyclone Nargis cut its deadly path through the region. Huddled in the township of Labutta, they told tales of survival against the odds even as children, mothers and fathers were swept away by the floodwaters that submerged huge swathes of the Irrawaddy delta. A Burma military official today said an estimated 80,000 people had died in the remote Labutta district, with dozens of the 63 villages surrounding Labutta township wiped out. [Source: AFP, May 8, 2008 ///]

“The storm came into our village, and a giant wave washed in, dragging everything into the sea,” said one man in his 20s, who had trekked in from Kanyinkone village. “Houses collapsed, buildings collapsed, and people were swept away. I only survived by hanging on to a big tree. “Only about 20 per cent of the people survived in our village. I am the only one who survived in my family. My wife and my two children died in the storm.” ///

“The Labutta district was hard hit when Nargis and its huge storm surge slammed ashore devastating the low-lying Irrawaddy delta. “The waves were so strong, they ripped off all my clothes. I was left naked hanging in a tree,” said one teenage survivor. Based on stories from people emerging from the countryside, only about 20 per cent of people in the area survived, Labutta residents said. “No one is left in my immediate family,” said one shell-shocked woman who was unable to stop her tears. “I also lost many brothers and sisters and their families.” ///

“Another woman saw her one-year-old baby die, and was trying to seek comfort with the hundreds of others who fled when the ramshackle villages were washed away after the storm hit. “We sit and talk about our lost ones together and cry, and then we stop again to think how we can cope with this hardship,” she said.Orphans, widows, grieving parents, monks - their faces blank and staring - sat on the floor of temporary shelters in the township awaiting assistance as conditions became increasingly desperate, with no drinking water, toilets or medicine. ///

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy,,, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2014

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