Massive disasters last month in Asia have once again thrown the spotlight on the unique capabilities of the helicopter in emergency relief operations.
Unfortunately, in one case, rescue workers were forced to only imagine the aid helicopters could bring to their efforts. At press time, the government of Myanmar (formerly Burma) was still blocking most international efforts to bring in aid and resources.
The Irrawaddy Delta, in the central part of that country, was devastated May 2 by Cyclone Nargis, a Category 3 storm that tore through that region with winds in excess of 100 kt (190 kph) driving a storm surge of 15 ft. Relief agencies estimated more than 2.5 million people were severely affected by the storm. At press time, the death toll could exceed 100,000, with more than 56,000 people missing.
As governments and relief agencies around the world stood by to fly aid into Myanmar and then to the affected regions, the international community condemned the country’s military-run government for blocking that aid. On May 14, the European Union warned Myanmar’s military leaders that they could be committing "a crime against humanity" by blocking aid to cyclone survivors. Helicopters were clearly critical to the delivery of that aid. The World Food Program, for instance, reported that it was delivering supplies by road using 30 local trucks but "most bridges in the Irrawaddy region are generally only able to bear a 5-ton truck and heavy vehicles will quickly render many roads impassable." The group was looking at using lighter trucks and boats to deliver aid, but said "there is a need for more helicopter support to reach people in more remote parts of the delta not accessible by boat or road." Its preference, it added, "would be to use helicopters, given muddy and moist conditions on the ground."
That storm was followed May 12 by a major earthquake in the Aba Prefecture of China’s Sichuan Province. The quake, which measured 7.9 on the Richter scale, was estimated to have killed 50,000, injured more than 26,000 and trapped 40,000 more under rubble as of this writing.