Saturday, November 17, 2007

Cyclone Sidr batters Bangladesh

Over a thousand people have been reported killed in Bangladesh after the coastal Sundarbans area was battered by Cyclone Sidr in the last two days, with the death toll expected to rise considerably. Hundreds of thousands of others have been affected by the storms and ensuing floods which have destroyed homes and roads, caused food and water shortages and cut off power and communication links. Most of the deaths were caused by high winds which blew down trees and debris on homes. The force of the cyclone is larger than Katrina which battered New Orleans in 2004.

The cyclone saw Bangladesh hit by tidal waves, floods and 240 kph winds that created havoc in the southern cities. The capital Dhaka was still without electricity on Friday. 20,000 homes were destroyed in the hardest-hit areas and at least 650,000 coastal villagers fled to shelters where they were given emergency rations. At least ten million more remain vulnerable in the country’s low-lying coastal region.

Authorities fear the death toll may actually be much higher than the reported 1,100 dead as rescue workers have not yet reached the worst affected outlying areas. The deputy head of the government's disaster management office, Shekhar Chandra Das, said they expect to find thousands of corpses along Bangladesh’s southern coast. In the coastal town of Jhalokati 140km south Dhaka, locals told AFP of their terror as the cyclone came through. "I have never seen such a terrible scene. It was like hell. I saw dozens of tin roofs flying into the air. Whole houses too," said a local businessman Manik Roy. "About 500 of us were huddled in a shelter in a government office. The windows were shattered and it seemed the whole building was shaking.”

The category five cyclone swept in from the Bay of Bengal and roared across the south-western Bangladesh and north-eastern Indian coast late Thursday. It brought driving rain, high waves and a seven metre high storm surge which levelled thousands of flimsy huts and destroying crops and fish farms across 15 coastal districts. Tidal waves hit also coastal areas in north Chennai in India.

Thanks to localised early warning systems such as microphone canvassing and radio bulletins, hundreds of thousands were evacuated in advance of the storm. Bloggers within Bangladesh reported on the damage. Shawn at The Uncultured Project reported from Dhaka that the city was blacked out (he was able to write using his laptop’s power), heavy rain was falling and a transformer had exploded nearby. Others blogging in Bangla said “It’s raining heavily outside. Gusty winds are also present. I am still awake to face unknown danger.”

It was Bangladesh’s fragile wilderness area known as the Sundarbans that bore the brunt of the storm. The area is a world natural heritage site and home to the endangered Royal Bengal tiger. Sidr hit the eastern parts of the forest leaving a trail of severe devastation. Dr Ainun Nishat, country representative of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), said he fears many wildlife including, tigers, deer, crocodiles, wild boars, king cobras, and monkeys might have been washed away under the weight of uprooted trees. “Sidr practically ruined the beauty of the Sundarbans”, he said.

Storms batter the coast of Bangladesh each year causing hundreds of deaths. The deadliest tropical cyclone ever recorded (pdf), the Bhola Cyclone, hit the Ganges Delta in November 1970 leaving up to half a million people dead. Another powerful storm, similar in strength to Sidr killed over 100,000 people in 1991. Most parts of Bangladesh are located in the low-lying Ganges-Brahmaputra River Delta, on average less than 12 metres above the sea level. About half the country would be flooded if the sea level were to rise by 1 metre.

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