Five days after the powerful cyclone struck, this city, Myanmar’s commercial capital and until Saturday a verdant oasis of wide avenues, was far from back to normal on Thursday.
Thousands of trees lie where they fell, jetties on the Yangon River have collapsed into the water and only a few traffic lights are working.
Most of Yangon, a city of 5 million people, remains without electricity, and even the local branch of the Ministry of Energy has no power.
The death toll in Yangon has been small compared with the devastation in the delta of the Irrawaddy River. The government has counted fewer than 400 people killed here compared with the more than 22,000 dead, and by some unofficial estimates possibly tens of thousands more, in all of Myanmar since the huge cyclone hit on Saturday.
But the inability of the government to clear debris and restore basic utilities like water and power in the country’s wealthiest city is a measure of how difficult Myanmar’s disaster recovery could be.
In Yangon, the top American diplomat’s Cadillac is trapped in the garage by giant fallen trees, and lines for rationed gasoline snake through the city for blocks. Generators hum everywhere. Buildings have lost roofs and facades. The sign for the Hotel Yangon is missing its Y and n.
Essential equipment — chainsaws, machines capable of lifting heavy debris and helicopters — is in short supply or absent altogether. The government has 12 helicopters, but only five are operational and can transport supplies to far-flung locations, diplomats here say. In neighborhoods here where soldiers are clearing trees, they are often using small machetes and axes to hack away at thick branches. Neighborhoods where workers have chainsaws look and smell like lumberyards.
Basic construction materials are unavailable.
“There are no nails to be found in Yangon,” said Shari Villarosa, the charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy here, who said the embassy imported chainsaws from Thailand and Bangladesh. “The basics are not here.”
The damage to buildings, many already decrepit, is extensive. The city’s largest hospital, a majestic red-brick building built by the British, lost large portions of its roof during the storm. Crumbling colonial mansions are newly ravaged by wind and rain. Reams of fabric at the nearby Bogyok Aung San market were soaked by the cyclone and were rolled out onto balconies to dry.
At the once elegant compound housing the French Embassy, Ambassador Jean Pierre Lafosse wanders the grounds looking lost.
The embassy’s front wall was destroyed by a fallen tree, as were other buildings and walls throughout the compound.
“All these trees were 40 and 50 years old,” said Lafosse, whose crisp white shirt and tie appear to be the only neat and orderly part of the embassy in the wake of the cyclone. “There is only one tree left. But that is not a unique situation in Rangoon at all.” Rangoon is the former name of Yangon.
In the wealthy neighborhoods where the generals and diplomats live, groups of soldiers are clearing away debris and workers are perched on rooftops replacing tiles. But in the poorer neighborhoods, “there are no soldiers at all,” said one resident.