Bangladesh cyclone toll nears 1 000

A powerful cyclone ripped through Bangladesh on Friday leaving a trail of destruction that claimed an estimated 1 000 lives and caused hundreds of thousands to flee the strong winds and driving rain.

Cyclone Sidr crashed into the south-western coast after racing up the Bay of Bengal at 240km/h and triggered a 5m-high tidal wave that washed away three coastal towns. More than 600 000 people were forced to evacuate their homes.

For hours the fury of the cyclone levelled villages, destroyed crops and sent telephone poles into the sky across a dozen districts abutting the sea. For most of Friday electricity and telephone lines were cut across the country.

The lack of power made it difficult for officials to uncover the true extent of the disaster.
The United News of Bangladesh, which has reporters across the devastated region, put the toll at 1 100.

According to reports many towns in the countryside, where homes are shacks made of bamboo and tin, were simply blown away by the cyclone’s winds.

“I cannot describe how devastating it was,” Mollik Tariqur, a businessman from south-western Bagerhat district, one of the worst-hit areas, told Agence France-Presse news agency. “It was like doomsday, the most frightening five hours of my life. I thought I would never see my family again.

“There is a trail of destruction everywhere. We can’t even detect exactly where our houses were. Only a few are left and they do not have roofs.”

Aid agencies struggled to get relief to the devastated areas, despite the fact much of Sidr’s strength had dissipated. The country’s meteorologists had downgraded it late on Friday night to a tropical storm, with wind speed falling to 59km/h.

Heather Blackwell, head of Oxfam in Bangladesh, said that the cyclone would hit poorest people hardest. “Many live on sandbanks in the river delta, which can be easily flooded by tidal surges. A cyclone this strong can literally wash away the sandbanks and mainland areas, forcing families to abandon their homes, livestock and crops.”

Vince Edwards, the Bangladesh director of the United States-based Christian aid group World Vision, told Reuters that debris from the storm had blocked roads and rivers, making it difficult to reach the worst hit areas. “There has been a lot of damage to houses made of mud and bamboo and about 60% to 80% of the trees have been uprooted.”

Others feared the death toll could rise. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) told reporters that 1 000 fishermen were missing. At least 150 trawlers have been reported missing.

Although authorities had broadcast repeated storm warnings, many of the missing boats may have been small vessels without radios.

The Bangladeshi navy launched search and rescue operations and four helicopters loaded with emergency relief supplies have been dispatched to some of the worst-hit areas, officials said.

The UN’s World Food Programme said it was sending 98 tonnes of high-energy biscuits to the region—enough for 400 000 people for three days. “The urgent needs are food, water purification tablets and medicines,” WFP spokesperson Christiane Berthiaume said.

Bangladesh is a low-lying delta region and has become used to dealing with floods and cyclones. Entire villagers had been moved to safety in preparing for Sidr.

Many say that Bangladesh has learned from experience. Sidr was considered as similar in strength to a 1991 storm that killed an estimated 130 000 people. Twenty years earlier half a million died.

On Friday night Bangladesh’s main Chittagong port reopened after being shut for two days. In the capital, Dhaka, Zia international airport reopened after 20 hours.

India escaped the worst of the cyclone. Mortaza Hossain, minister in West Bengal, said that 100 mud houses in a forest close to Bangladesh had been damaged. About 100 000 villagers in coastal areas of West Bengal would return home after being evacuated to 69 temporary camps, he added. - Guardian Unlimited Â

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