Military joins efforts to help storm victims

MILITARY helicopters and ships joined rescue operations yesterday as aid workers struggled to reach the victims of a cyclone that tore apart villages and towns in Bangladesh, leaving more than 1,700 dead.

Tropical cyclone Sidr flattened tens of thousands of homes last Thursday and left millions more without power in the deadliest storm in the impoverished south Asian country in more than a decade. More than a million coastal villagers were forced to evacuate to government shelters.

In the worst-hit southwest, rescuers battled along roads that were washed out or blocked by debris to try to get water and food to people stranded by flooding. Some employed elephants to help.

The Ministry of Disaster Management, which has struggled to collect detailed information because of the disruptions to power and communications, put the official death toll at 1,723.

"The toll is rising fast, as we receive more information from outlying areas where telephone lines have been restored," said Mokhlesur Rahman, a ministry official in the capital Dhaka.

Yesterday, 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 along the coast, the Inter Services Public Relations department said.

The damage to livelihoods, housing and crops will be "extremely severe", said John Holmes, the UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, on Friday, adding that it was making millions of dollars in aid available.

International humanitarian organisations, such as Unicef and CARE, were working alongside government and local volunteer agencies to provide safe drinking water and emergency supplies.

"We are hopeful that emergency preparations in place and quick action have successfully reduced the loss of human life," said Suman Islam of CARE Bangladesh.

"But many people are now homeless, crops and livelihoods have been destroyed, and this is going to put great pressure on the government, the economy and the people themselves."

The 150mph 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 UN agency believed more than 20,000 houses were damaged in the hardest-hit districts. He said the death toll in the crowded nation, with a population of 150 million, was expected to climb beyond the government's figures.

About 150 fishing trawlers were unaccounted for, he said.

Many parts of Dhaka remained without power or water yesterday.

Hasanul Amin, assistant director of the official cyclone preparation programme and the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, said about a dozen teams had been deployed to the worst-hit areas in the country's southwest. He said it was slow-going.

In the village of Sharankhola, people waited for hours to get biscuits and rice, according to Bishnu Prasad, a United News of Bangladesh reporter.

"We have lost everything," a farmer, Moshararf Hossain, told Prasad. "We have nowhere to go."

Sidr created four-foot-high waves that swept through low-lying areas and islands, leaving them under water, said Nahid Sultana, an official of the Ministry of Food and Disaster Management.

At least 1.5 million villagers along the coast had fled to shelters where they were given emergency rations, said senior government official Ali Imam Majumder.

Many evacuees returned home yesterday to find their straw and bamboo huts had been flattened. Some sought refuge with neighbours in brick houses that withstood the storm.

"We survived, but what we need now is help to rebuild our homes," said Chand Miah, a resident of Maran Char, a small island in the Khulna district.

Bangladesh is prone to cyclones and floods that cause huge losses of life and property. The most recent deadly storm previously was a tornado that levelled 80 villages in northern Bangladesh in 1996, killing 621 people.

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