U.N. Weather Agency Says Deaths From Burma Storm Inevitable, Warnings Sufficient

The storm warnings issued by Burma, renamed Myanmar by the ruling military junta, to alert its population about Cyclone Nargis were sufficient and heavy loss of life was inevitable, the U.N. weather agency said Wednesday.

Even rich countries would have struggled to cope with the type of storm that hit the Southeast Asian country on May 2-3, resulting in at least 78,000 dead, an official with the World Meteorological Organization said.

"Enhanced warnings would not have made a big difference," said Dieter Schiessl, director of the U.N. agency's disaster risk reduction unit.

Warning times of five to seven days would have been necessary, Schiessl told journalists in Geneva. Such early notice is beyond the current state of weather prediction technology, he added.

Burma's location on the eastern Bay of Bengal, the path the storm took, the heavy rains that accompanied it and the country's limited infrastructure all contributed to the scale of the disaster, Schiessl said.

Burma told the United Nations it issued a total of 33 warnings to local officials and national media that were then passed on to the public including through hourly radio broadcasts.

"For two days national radio and television continuously warned the people," Ambassador Wunna Maung Lwin from Burma told a global health meeting in Geneva on Monday.

The country, which is also known as Burma, has faced international criticism for its response to the storm, including the restrictions imposed on foreign aid workers and journalists seeking to enter the country during the aftermath.

The U.N. weather agency was unable to independently verify the frequency and content of the warnings, Schiessl said.

Neighboring Bangladesh, which is frequently hit by severe storms during the monsoon season, has managed to reduce its death toll in recent years by building raised storm shelters and instructing its people what to do in case of a cyclone, he said.

Although heavy storms are much less frequent in Burma, Schiessl said the country should consider similar measures to prevent massive loss of life from future cyclones.