YANGON (Reuters) - A cyclone killed more than 350 people in military-ruled Myanmar, ripping through Yangon and the Irrawaddy delta where it flattened at least two towns, officials and state media said on Sunday.
The death toll is likely to climb as the authorities manage to contact outlying islands and villages that felt the full force of Cyclone Nagris, a Category 3 storm packing winds of 120 miles per hour when it hit early on Saturday.
State television, which was still off air in Yangon more than 36 hours after Nagris slammed into the city of 5 million, reported 20,000 homes destroyed on one island alone, a government official in the remote capital, Naypyidaw, said.
The island, Haingyi, is around 200 km southwest of Yangon on the western fringes of the Irrawaddy delta.
Nagris, which had been gathering steam in the Bay of Bengal for several days, devastated the former Burma’s leafy main city, littering the streets with overturned cars, fallen trees and debris from battered buildings.
“Utter war zone,” one diplomat said in an email to Reuters in Bangkok. “Trees across all streets. Utility poles down. Hospitals devastated. Clean water scarce.”
Earlier, state media said 19 people had been killed in Yangon and 222 in the delta, where weather forecasters had predicted a storm surge of as much as 12 feet
Official newspapers said only one in four buildings were left standing in Laputta and Kyaik Lat, two towns deep in the rice-producing region. There were no details of casualties.
In Yangon, many roofs were ripped off even sturdy buildings, suggesting damage would be severe in the shanty towns that lie on its outskirts.
Foreign aid workers, their movements restricted by the ruling military junta, struggled to reach many impoverished areas to assess the impact.
“I have never seen anything like it,” one retired government worker told Reuters. “It reminded me of when Hurricane Katrina hit the United States.”
Although the sun shone on Sunday, the former capital was without power and water, and food prices had doubled overnight, with many storeholders unsure of when they would be able to replenish stocks. Most shops had sold out of candles.
An Electricity Board official said it was impossible to know when the power supply — hit-and-miss at the best of times in one of Asia’s poorest countries — would be restored.
“We still have to clear the mess,” the official, who did not want to be named, said.
United Nations disaster experts said it would be days before the full extent of the damage was known in a country ruled since 1962 by secretive and ruthless military regimes.
Bunkered down in Naypyidaw, 240 miles to the north, the junta’s top brass will almost certainly have avoided the worst of the storm.
The regime declared a disaster in five states and government television carried footage of soldiers clearing trees from roads and Prime Minister Thein Sein, a lieutenant-general, meeting people sheltering in a Buddhist pagoda.
As soldiers and police tried to clear streets and find victims beneath the rubble of fallen buildings, relief experts scrambled in neighboring Thailand in case the junta — normally deeply distrustful of the outside world — asked for help.
“It was a direct hit on a major city,” said Terje Skavdal, regional head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA).
“The government did warn people to stay inside and that might have had an impact, but the material damage is enormous,” Skavdal said. The U.N. had yet to receive a response from the junta to its official offer of help, he added.
It remains to be seen what impact the storm will have on a referendum on an army-drafted constitution scheduled for May 10.
The charter is part of a “roadmap to democracy” meant to culminate in multiparty elections in 2010 and end nearly five decades of military rule. The opposition and Western governments say it allows the army to retain too much control.
All flights in an out of Yangon were cancelled. Thai Airways in Bangkok said they would not resume until Monday at the earliest.
By 1500 GMT (11: 00 a.m. EDT), Nagris had tracked northeast into northern Thailand, where it was dumping large amounts of rain but with dramatically reduced wind speeds.
Additional reporting by Khettiya Jittapong and Darren Schuettler in Bangkok; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Charles Dick