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Myanmar From the 36th Floor

Frustration at the U.N.’s global-disaster-relief HQ.

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When the cyclone hit Myanmar May 3, it was felt 8,000 miles away, on the 36th floor of 760 United Nations Plaza—the headquarters of the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “Mother’s Day didn’t really happen,” says Ivan Lupis, the head Myanmar coordinator. “It was my wife’s first. I was here for fifteen hours.” Arzu Hatakoy is usually assigned to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Now she’s suddenly a Myanmar expert. “It’s crazy. There’s no sleep. I have 2,000 unread e-mails. But at least it’s a natural disaster—the processes are always the same.”

OCHA is like a global 311 for the apocalypse. Their day starts at 7 a.m., prepping for an 8:30 a.m. video conference with Yangon, Bangkok, and Geneva. The map guys, in a separate building, regularly remap the disaster zone and circulate their updates. “Every morning, I send out an e-mail to the missions and private-sector entities saying, ‘This is what happened. Please tell me what you know,’ ” says Shoko Arakaki, the head of donor and external relations. “Sometimes countries like Singapore know more than we do. So we compare notes.” There’s the crazed IT department, ordering BlackBerrys by the dozens. And the donations department, glued to phones to raise another $180 million from the twenty-odd rich countries that donate in such crises. “Hey, someone wants to make a private donation to the emergency-appeal fund,” Lupis calls out. “Can they do that?” “Um, I guess. Send them to the Website. Who?” “The Baha’is.” “Oh. Yes, they definitely can.”

Though Myanmar quickly appealed for international aid after the May 3 cyclone, the ruling junta took ten days to provide a mere nine visas for U.N. staff, for a disaster affecting 2.5 million people. “They’re saying, ‘Give us goodies, but don’t send us people,’ ” says Rashid Khalikov, the sleep-deprived director of OCHA’s New York office. “We keep telling them that we must monitor and evaluate the aid. It’s a requirement of the donor countries.” Though there were 1,500 U.N. staff in Myanmar when the cyclone hit, they’re development experts and not trained for disasters. “They’re not there for humanitarian response,” says Khalikov. “It’s like telling a hockey player to go play basketball.”

The details are dismal. In the ten days following the 2003 Iran earthquake, more than 300 aid airplanes arrived. Myanmar let in 23 in the same time period. Despite this, the atmosphere among the blue cubicles on the 36th floor is calm. “You have to remember that in all the disasters we do, people have already died,” says hypercaffeinated spokesperson Stephanie Bunker, whose BlackBerry dings continuously. “We’re concerned about the second wave, the people who die of diseases. Right now, people aren’t dying in droves. Usually that takes around two weeks, and we’re trying to prevent it.”

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