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Originally published May 7, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 7, 2008 at 3:59 PM

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Local relief efforts get organized

Discussions at the monthly Seattle Burma Roundtable meetings usually revolve around longer-term issues in the Southeast Asian nation, such...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Raw audio from the interview with World Vision representatives

Discussions at the monthly Seattle Burma Roundtable meetings usually revolve around longer-term issues in the Southeast Asian nation, such as the political situation or the plight of refugees.

Tuesday, the topic was immediate: how to raise funds fast in order to buy water-purification tablets for those hit hard by the cyclone in Myanmar.

Since Cyclone Nargis hit Saturday, more than 22,000 people have died, about 41,000 others are missing and an estimated 1 million are homeless. Local Burmese and local aid groups are scrambling to meet the most immediate need: providing clean water.

"Even if people make it past the cyclone, we're worried people won't make it past the consequences of the cyclone if there's no clean water," said Pwint Htun, who left Myanmar, also known as Burma, about 20 years ago.

Htun, who was able to contact her family in the country after a series of e-mails and cellphone calls, said her relatives told her drinking water was scarce, even in the capital of Yangon. A bottle of water was selling for more than double the daily income a typical worker would make, she said.

Htun and others worry about waterborne diseases such as typhoid, cholera and dysentery. Her relatives told her about seeing dead bodies in the river.

So Htun and others in the Seattle Burma Roundtable, composed of dozens of people — Burmese and otherwise — interested in the country, are raising money. They're working with the Ballard-based nonprofit World Aid to buy or get in-kind contributions of water-purification tablets.

The tablets are easy to transport and use, and wouldn't require the more extensive education involved with longer-term solutions like water-purification equipment, said Htun, who volunteers with World Aid.

World Vision, the large, Federal Way-based aid organization, has worked in Myanmar for 40 years, and has about 580 people there focusing on issues such as agriculture, clean water and education.

One staffer, Wah Eh Htoo, wrote an account of trying to reach World Vision headquarters in Yangon from farther north where staff members had been trying to help people prepare for the incoming cyclone.

"The journey to Yangon was like entering a battlefield with the wounded and dying lying on [the] ground," Htoo said in his account, posted on the organization's Web site. "Flood water lined the neighborhoods we passed by."

"The passenger who sat beside me said, 'It's an apocalypse,' " Htoo wrote.

Like the Seattle Burma Roundtable, World Vision is focusing on water as the first, most pressing concern. It's bringing in bottled water to address immediate needs, and setting up water-purification and filtration systems for longer-term needs, said spokesman Casey Calamusa.

It's also distributing food and shelter material such as tarps. It hopes to ship more supplies from its warehouses in Dubai and Germany, as well as bring in more staff from Bangkok.

The organization also is appealing for $3 million to help about 250,000 people who have been hardest hit.

Bellevue-based Medical Teams International is planning to send medical supplies and possibly volunteers to the country.

The Seattle Myanmar Buddhist Association, which holds regular prayer meetings on Saturdays in Kent, plans to offer special prayers this weekend for those who died and those who are suffering, said the association's president. The association also plans to discuss then how it should help with the relief efforts.

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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