Several islands off Cox's Bazar, on the southern tip of Bangladesh, were swamped and remain cut-off, while on the mainland, tens of thousands of people had their homes reduced to splinters. Officially, the death toll was put at 163 dead yesterday, but the casualty figure is expected to climb sharply, once rescue teams reach the worst-hit areas, south of Cox's Bazar.
The full ferocity of the cyclone struck Teknaf, where more than 189,000 Burmese refugees were living huddled in bamboo shacks in low-lying areas. They had fled the military regime's repression against Muslims in Burma, only to be cornered and battered by a cyclone. A United Nations official, Eimi Watanabe, who flew over the shattered area yesterday, said: 'Some of the camps were completely demolished. Houses were blown away, big forest trees were knocked flat.'
As the cyclone whirled towards Bangladesh last weekend, gathering speed and virulence, Dhaka officials feared a repeat of the 1991 storm, which left more than 135,000 people dead. That time, the cyclone kicked up a giant tidal bore which roared over coastal villages. This time Bangladeshis were spared the strong seas. 'The death figure is always colossal in the islands, due to a tidal upsurge. But fortunately, this didn't happen,' said the Information Secretary, Nurrudin al-Masud.
The storm was headed for the populated cities of Dhaka and Chittagong when it suddenly veered eastwards, striking near Cox's Bazar. The area is a low-lying stretch of sand isles, coconut groves and rice paddies, teeming with more than 1.2 million people who, because of intense over-crowding in Bangladesh, are forced to live precariously close to the sea.
Many lives were saved by a new early storm-warning system, which gave 500,000 coastal residents 24 hours to take shelter in concrete bunkers on high stilts and in school buildings. But few of the Burmese refugees, known as Rohingyas, made it to safety. 'A mass evacuation just wasn't feasible,' a relief worker said. 'They had to run for high ground and find whatever secure place they could.'
The last big cyclone had tossed ships in Chittagong harbour like bath toys, so this time, the tankers were moved out into deep water, and what aircraft remained of Bangladesh's air force - 38 jets were destroyed in the 1991 cyclone - were also flown out of harm's way.
Bangladesh's Prime Minister, Begum Khaleda Zia, flew by helicopter with several of her cabinet ministers to some of the worst-stricken villages, distributing food and fresh water. As soon as the storm passed, late on Monday night, army convoys carrying supplies headed for Cox's Bazar. The day before the storm hit, the Prime Minister asked Muslim clergymen to pray that Bangladesh be spared the impending catastrophe. Safety precautions, and luck, perhaps, saved Bangladesh from a far worse disaster.
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