Death toll climbs to 1,723 in Bangladesh
By Parveen Ahmed
Copyright 2007 The Associated Press
DHAKA, Bangladesh — The official death toll from a savage cyclone that wreaked havoc on southwest Bangladesh reached 1,723 Saturday — the deadliest storm to hit the country in a decade.
Military helicopters and ships joined rescue and relief operations and aid workers on the ground struggled to reach victims. Tropical Cyclone Sidr tore apart villages, severely disrupted power lines and forced more than a million coastal villagers to evacuate to government shelters.
The latest death figure tallied to 1,723, with 474 deaths reported from worst-hit Barguna district and 385 from neighboring Patuakhali, a military spokesman, Lt. Col. Moyeenullah Chowdhury, told reporters in the capital, Dhaka.
Rescuers battled along roads that were washed out or blocked by wind-blown debris to try to get water and food to people stranded by flooding. Some employed the brute force of elephants to help in their efforts.
"We sent a relief team in a jeep, but they had to return halfway as the roads and channels were unpassable," M. Shakil Anwar of CARE Bangladesh said by telephone from nearby Khulna city.
The roads were strewn with fallen trees and covered in muddy sludge, Anwar said. Small ferries — which are the only means of transport across the numerous river channels that crisscross the area — were flung ashore by the force of cyclone winds.
"We will try again tomorrow on bicycles, and hire local country boats," Anwar said. He added that they planned to distribute dry foods and other emergency rations among 500 families of the area.
On Saturday, the army deployed helicopters to deliver supplies to the remotest areas, while navy ships delivered supplies and dispensed medical assistance to migrant fishing communities living on and around hundreds of tiny islands, or shoals, along the coast, the Inter Services Public Relations department said in a statement.
The state-run Bangladesh Television showed hundreds of people scrambling beneath a helicopter as it dropped food packages through an open hatch. Others scurried on the ground to collect spilled goods.
The report said at least 3,000 troops were deployed to help in the relief and rescue operations.
The damage to livelihood, housing and crops will be "extremely severe," John Holmes, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said Friday, adding that the world body was making millions of dollars in aid available to Bangladesh.
Several international humanitarian organizations, like UNICEF and CARE, were working alongside government and local volunteer agencies to provide safe drinking water and emergency supplies in the affected areas.
The 150 mph winds wreaked havoc on the country's electricity and telephone lines, affecting even areas that were spared a direct hit, and leaving the full picture of the death and destruction unclear.
Holmes said his U.N. agency believed that more than 20,000 houses were damaged in the hardest-hit districts. About 150 fishing trawlers were unaccounted for, he said.
Many parts of Dhaka, the biggest city in this poor, desperately crowded nation of 150 million people, remained without power or water Saturday.
Sidr spawned a 4 foot-high storm surge that swept through low-lying areas and some offshore islands, leaving them under water, said Nahid Sultana, an official of the Ministry of Food and Disaster Management.
Many evacuees returned home Saturday to find their straw and bamboo huts had been flattened by the storm. Some sought refuge with neighbors living in brick houses that withstood the storm.
"We survived, but what we need now is help to rebuild our homes," Chand Miah, a resident of Maran Char, a small island in Khulna district, told the Associated Press.
Bangladesh is prone to cyclones and floods that cause huge losses of life and property. The most recent deadly storm was a tornado that leveled 80 villages in northern Bangladesh in 1996, killing 621 people.
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