Friday November 16, 2007
Relief workers today struggled to reach devastated parts of Bangladesh after a powerful cyclone ripped through the country, leaving a trail of destruction that claimed more than 600 lives.
Cyclone Sidr hit the country's south-west coast yesterday after racing up the Bay of Bengal at a speed of 150mph. The winds triggered a five metre (15ft) high tidal wave that washed away three coastal towns.
The government's disaster agency put the confirmed number of dead at 606, but there were fears the death toll would rise considerably.
More than 600,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes to escape the winds and driving rain.
The fury of the cyclone levelled villages, destroyed crops and sent telephone poles whirling into the sky across a dozen districts abutting the sea.
According to reports, many towns in the countryside - where homes are often shacks made of bamboo and tin - were blown away in the cyclone.
Power and telephone lines were cut across the country for most of yesterday, hampering relief operations.
"I cannot describe how devastating it was," Mollik Tariqur, a businessman in the south-western district of Bagerhat, one of the worst-hit areas, told the AFP 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 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, even though much of Sidr's strength had dissipated. Late last night, the country's meteorologists had downgraded the cyclone late last night to a tropical storm, its wind speed falling to 37mph.
Heather Blackwell, the head of Oxfam in Bangladesh, said the cyclone would hit poorest people hardest.
"Many people live on sandbanks in the river delta, which can be easily flooded by tidal surges," she said. "A cyclone this strong can wash away the sandbanks, forcing families to abandon their homes, livestock and crops".
Vince Edwards, the Bangladesh director of the Christian aid group World Vision, told Reuters debris from the storm had blocked roads and rivers, making it difficult to reach all the areas that had been hit.
"There has been lot of damage to houses made of mud and bamboo, and about 60% to 80% of trees [in affected parts] have been uprooted," he said.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs told reporters 1,000 fishermen were missing.
The Bangladesh navy has launched a search and rescue operation, while helicopters have begun ferrying relief supplies to offshore islands, according to the defence ministry.
The UN World Food Programme has started to distribute 98 tonnes of high-energy biscuits to storm victims.
Bangladesh, a low-lying delta region, is used to floods and cyclones. Entire villagers had been moved to safety in preparation for Sidr.
It may have benefited from experience. Sidr was considered similar in strength to a 1991 storm that killed an estimated 130,000 people. Twenty years earlier, half a million people had died in a storm.
Last night, Bangladesh's main port, Chittagong - which handles 80% of external trade - reopened after two days. "We have [resumed] normal operations at the port as the storm crossed the coast overnight," a senior official told Reuters.
In the country's capital, Dhaka, Zia international airport reopened after 20 hours as the subsiding cyclone moved towards Assam, in India.
Bangladesh's enormous neighbour escaped the worst of the storm. Mortaza Hossain, a government minister in West Bengal, said just 100 mud houses in a forest close to Bangladesh had been damaged.
Around 100,000 villagers in coastal areas of West Bengal would return home after being evacuated to 69 temporary camps, he added.