YAW PAR GYI, Burma – One month after a cyclone left more than 130,000 people dead or missing, Burma's military government reopened many of the country's schools Monday despite worries that the extent of damage could put children in harm's way.
And although the military rulers pledge a speedy rehabilitation, demand and prices have soared for the material needed to rebuild homes. Many survivors say they have been forced to pick through the storm's rubble in search of anything left intact.
In Hlaingthayar Township, fisherman Ko Niang has managed to patch together a rickety lean-to from scavenged bamboo bits and soggy palm fronds.
He said he tried to borrow money from friends and family to build a new shack, "but there was no one to borrow it from. Everyone is in need."
Cyclone Nargis killed 78,000 people and left another 56,000 missing when it struck Burma, renamed Myanmar by the ruling junta, on May 2-3. The military government was criticized for its response, with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates saying the government had acted with "criminal neglect."
Foreign aid workers say the regime in Myanmar, also known as Burma, is still dragging its feet on allowing quick and full access to survivors of the disaster.
"Access remains problematic both for logistic staff inside Burma to the delta and for staff trying to get in from the outside," said Lionel Rosenblatt, president emeritus of the U.S.-based Refugees International.
Myanmar Deputy Defense Minister Maj. Gen. Aye Myint said at a conference in Singapore that the government moved quickly to rescue and provide relief to the estimated 2.4 million survivors.
In its struggle to return to normalcy, the junta reopened many schools in areas hit by the cyclone in the Irrawaddy delta, though some were scheduled to reopen in July.
The United Nations Children's Fund said more than 4,000 schools serving 1.1 million children were damaged or destroyed by the storm and more than 100 teachers were killed. As a result, the government planned to train volunteer teachers and hold some classes in camps and other temporary sites, UNICEF said.
Anupama Rao Singh, UNICEF's regional director, said reopening schools in the delta "may be too ambitious," since construction materials were still on the way and there was not enough time to rebuild schools and train new teachers.
The Irrawaddy delta region also was Burma's center of production for Nipa palm, whose feathery leaves are woven into a low-cost thatch widely used for walls and roofing. The storm destroyed many of the palm plantations and prices have since tripled.
In Yaw Par Gyi, a village on the northern edges of Burma's largest city, Rangoon, villagers were relying on a patchwork of old thatch, cardboard and blue tarpaulin handed out by monks at a nearby monastery to protect them from daily downpours.
One resident, 45-year-old Hla Kyi, is luckier than most. He still has a floor to sleep on, even though the storm plucked most of the thatch off his roof.
Hla Kyi's tiny dank hut houses his wife, four children and three other relatives. With so many mouths to feed, he said he is not able to put money aside for a new roof.
"It leaks all over when it rains, but what can we do?" said Hla Kyi, a day laborer who earns about $3 a day.
At least 35,000 homes were destroyed, according to an initial estimate by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, or IFRC. Thousands of other buildings will also have to be rebuilt, UNICEF has said.
Ma Myoe We, the owner of a construction material shop in Rangoon, said a sheaf of 100 palm sheets, which used to sell for about $6.50 now goes for $17.50.
But she said she has run out of stock and has no idea when more will be delivered.
The price of sturdy bamboo poles, onto which the thatch is anchored, has nearly doubled from 70 cents per pole $1.20.
Ramesh Shrestha, who represents UNICEF in Burma, confirmed prices in the country have risen since the cyclone — not only for construction materials, but also for food, petrol and other essentials.
With bridges smashed and roads impassable, "the supply lines have been severed and nothing can get to market," said IFRC staffer Eelko Brouwer, who heads a group of international organizations and aid groups working to shelter storm victims.
Brouwer said that if thatch prices remain high, aid groups will consider importing palm from neighboring Bangladesh or Thailand in a bid to drive the cost down.