Friday, August 26, 2016

Soldiers, locals begin cleanup after earthquake in Myanmar

Military personnel clear debris at a temple on Aug. 25 that was damaged by a strong earthquake a day earlier in Bagan, Myanmar. (AP Photo)
BAGAN, Myanmar--Using brooms and their hands, soldiers and residents of an ancient Myanmar city famous for its historic Buddhist temples began cleaning up debris Thursday from a powerful earthquake that shook the region and damaged nearly 200 pagodas.
At least four people were killed and at least 171 pagodas were damaged in Bagan after a 6.8 magnitude quake struck the area on Wednesday. The tremor was centered about 25 kilometers west of Chauk, just south of Bagan.
The city is one of Myanmar's top tourist attractions, drawing visitors from all over the world who can view a panorama of temples stretching to the horizon flanked by the Irrawaddy River.
Maria Gomez, a Portuguese tourist, said she was walking to the river to watch the sunset when "we felt the Earth moving. Everybody was very scared and everybody was shouting."
"Only after maybe 30 seconds we realized what was happening," she said.
Myanmar President Htin Kyaw arrived in Bagan on Thursday to assess the damage and speak with local officials about how to repair it.
The city has more than 2,200 structures, including pagodas and temples, constructed in the 10th to 14th centuries. Many are in disrepair while others have been restored in recent years, aided by the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO.
According to the Ministry of Religion and Culture, 171 pagodas were affected there and 19 were damaged elsewhere in the country.
Zaw Naing, a caretaker at one of the city's pagodas who paints and sells his work to tourists, said he was saddened by the damage--but also concerned that the quake could endanger the livelihood of villagers.
"I'm very worried ... there will be less tourists to Bagan," Zaw Naing said. "I have three children to take care of."
As he spoke, soldiers and residents were picking up broken red bricks with their hands and placing them in sacks. Others swept walkways leading to temples that had been engulfed in huge clouds of dust when the tremor struck; the iconic tops of some of the pagodas had collapsed.
Much of what fell off the temples was modern bricks which had been added by Myanmar's former military regime during past, haphazard efforts at restoration.
Duong Bich Hanh, an official with UNESCO in Bangkok, said Myanmar authorities should approach rebuilding the damaged temples in Bagan "very cautiously ... to make sure the site is restored properly for the long-term enjoyment of future generations."
On Wednesday, Dr. Myo Thant, general secretary of the Myanmar Earthquake Committee, said other areas apparently were not badly affected.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was "saddened" by the loss of life and damage and expressed his condolences.
He said the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is in contact with authorities in Myanmar and is ready to support the government and local organizations.
Vincent Panzani, a staff member in Pakokku for the aid agency Save the Children, said several of his colleagues from the area described the earthquake as the strongest they have experienced.
"We felt quite heavy shaking for about 10 seconds and started to evacuate the building when there was another strong tremor," he said in comments sent by email. "Most of the reports of damage have been to the pagodas in the area with dozens impacted."
Worried residents of Yangon, the country's main city, rushed out of tall buildings, and objects toppled from tables and from Buddhist shrines in homes. However, there were no reports of serious damage in the city.
The last major quake in the area--which is often affected by smaller tremors--occurred in April about 300 km further north, and measured magnitude 6.9. It caused no reported casualties and only minor damage.
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