Surviving the Myanmar storm
For eight hours May 2 Susan Semmler huddled in her Myanmar apartment and listened to the sounds of destruction outside her windows.
The former Rosemount High School teacher, who spent the past four years teaching at International School of Yangon, never worried much about her own safety inside her bunkerlike concrete apartment building. But through the windows she could see sheets of rain falling and she could hear massive cracks as ancient, seven-story teak trees toppled in the wind of Cyclone Nargis. She wondered what she would find when the weather finally cleared.
What she found was devastation. The forest that once stood behind her building was gone.
"It looked like a bomb had gone off," Semmler said. "I had seen things in my back yard that I had never seen before."
There was no telephone service. There was no power. Semmler didn't see so much as a chainsaw for four days after the cyclone. She watched as people used hacksaws and hatchets and whatever else was at hand to clear the countless trees that had fallen. Many Burmese live in simple bamboo huts. The storm wiped out entire villages and by some estimates killed as many as 130,000.
The severity of the storm came as a surprise to most.
"Their national weather center is a thermometer and wind vane," Semmler said.
With no better idea of what to do when they were finally able to go outside again, Semmler and the other teachers who lived in her building walked to the school where they worked.
"We figured everybody would find their way there," she said.
Once she knew her friends were safe Semmler turned her attention to recovery. All around her people were digging out of the rubble of their homes. They were salvaging what they could and clearing away what they couldn't. With most of her possessions safe, Semmler focused on helping others.
Semmler and others she knows are sponsoring a Myanmari girl as she attends school at a community college near New London, where Semmler's family lives. Semmler and others helped build a new roof on that family's home after the old roof was lifted off by the storm.
Back at home, Semmler's father, the Rev. Duane Semmler, set up a fund through the churches he serves. Semmler's story appeared first in local newspapers, then in national news reports. The fund has raised nearly $40,000.
While she was in Myanmar, Semmler helped oversee the distribution of that money. She bought staples like umbrellas -- it's currently the monsoon season in Myanmar -- and basic food and clothing. Semmler and her students assembled more than 3,000 aid packs for storm victims and 400 refugees being cared for by a Baptist church to which Semmler has close ties.
She bought 500 bananas for $20.
Helping others was not always easy. For weeks after the storm Semmler was not allowed to leave the city. That meant she was unable to visit a community of nuns with which Semmler had developed a relationship.
Providing aid was also made more difficult by the Myanmari currency. Semmler said the largest bill in Myanmar is worth the equivalent of $1. With no checks or credit cards, that means people have to carry large amounts of cash with them whenever they want to make big purchases. To buy supplies Semmler and her students split into teams and had competitions to see who could spend their share of the money most exactly.
Semmler has heard plenty of sad stories since the storm. She met one man who was holding his two babies when the storm hit. He was hit by a giant wave and dropped them.
Semmler left Myanmar May 30. She's getting back to normal life here. She bought a car and a townhome. She's got a teaching job lined up for next fall. But she hasn't left what happened to her completely behind. She still has friends in Myanmar and she's still doing what she can to make sure donations get into the hands of people who can make the best use of them.
At times, she said, she feels guilty to be safe here while others are still going through so much difficulty.
"I don't know where it ends," she said. "I feel responsible. Any funds that come in, I want to get into their hands.
"It's quite unbelievable to go through something like that and come back to all these well-wishes."
Semmler said the experience she went through in Myanmar, seeing people who had almost nothing lose everything, has given her a new perspective on life. People are amazed when she tells them she bought a home and a car in one week earlier this month, but to Semmler those seem like small things.
"I'm more thankful and less rattled by things," Semmler said. "I'm very thankful for everything I have and for my experience."
A new experience
Semmler was looking for some adventure when she signed on to teach in Myanmar, and it sounds like she got it. Teachers are a highly-regarded class in that country, and Semmler, who taught biology, had a cook and a driver while she lived there. Because of this country's strained relationship with the Myanmari government she also had a kind of diplomatic status there.
But there were restrictions on her movement even before the storm.
Semmler decided last November it was time to come home. But her final months in Myanmar were eventful. Many of the protests that took place in that country late last year were staged just a mile or two from her apartment. Semmler said she and many of her colleagues agonized over whether to get involved before ultimately deciding doing so could jeopardize their status in the country.
"We really wanted to help the underdog," Semmler said. "We really wanted to help against the bully."
Donations can be sent to the Tripolis Lutheran Church Mission Fund, Box 356, Kandiyohi, MN 56251.