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Sunday, November 18, 2007
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Rescue goes on as toll crosses 2,000

Still thousands missing; ships, aircrafts, copters join the search; hundreds of thousands homeless; over 2 lakh livestock killed

(Top...) A man collects cow carcasses floating in a canal at Taful in Bagherhat yesterday. The animals perished when Sidr lashed the region Thursday. (From left...) Teachers salvage computers and other equipment at a college in Morelganj of Bagherhat destroyed in the storm. An off-duty policeman stares at his wet belongings at Baroikhali Police Station in Bagherhat. Sidr blew the station's tin-roof away. Locals gather around an air force chopper hoping for relief materials at Shudhikhali Degree College ground in Patuakhali yesterday. Photo: AFP/Focus Bangla

Aid workers and volunteers were toiling hard yesterday to collect decomposing bodies and rescue thousands of survivors from the monster cyclone Sidr that ripped through the country's southern shoreline early Friday, wreaking deadly havoc on more than a dozen districts.

The disaster management control room reported at 1:30am today the deaths of 1,784 people in 23 districts, Bagerhat leading the casualties list with 610. However, unofficial estimates based on the accounts of rescuers and newsmen put the death toll at over 2,000, with several thousands still missing.

Caught off guard with the scale of devastation, the nation focused on the rescue operation and rebuilding as the armed forces joined the monumental task, and donors and different organisations pledged millions of dollars in aid.

Packing winds over 220km an hour, the cyclone demolished houses, crops, trees and Satkhira shrimp farms along its trail of devastation over an area of thousands of square kilometres.

The disaster management control room prepared a rough estimate of losses caused by Sidr that will be a severe blow to the economy, which is already suffering huge losses from back-to-back floods in the middle of this year. The cyclone left its mark of devastation on 103 upazilas, 710 unions, affecting 27.45 lakh people of about 8.44 lakh families. The storm also killed 2.42 lakh livestock and completely destroyed crops on 18,122-acre land including six lakh metric tons of Aman. According to the estimate, 2.73 lakhs houses were totally flattened.

Of the 610 dead in Bagerhat, 550 were killed only in Sharankhola, an upazila close to Sundarbans where the fierce tropical storm made its landfall Thursday midnight. Both government and private sources gave accounts of horrors from a union of the worst hit Sharankhola. As per conservative estimates, over 400 dead bodies were recovered from the Southkhali union alone while the fate of a few thousand fishermen in another washed-away union -- Dublar Char -- could not be known as yet.

“I'm approaching 50, and I also hailed from the coastal areas of Feni. But I have never seen such scale of devastation in my whole life,” District Commissioner of Bagerhat Sahidul Islam summed up his dreadful experience yesterday. With the Bagerhat toll feared to at least double, the DC told The Daily Star over the phone that the number of casualties had been lessened due to the assistance from all quarters and the government's evacuation drive.

Survivors and rescuers in the six worst-hit districts Bagerhat, Barguna, Patuakhali, Pirojpur, Barisal and Jhalakathi -- were seen in tears, burying their dear ones with the air thick with smells of decomposing bodies of human beings and livestock. With the communications and utility services yet to be restored fully, aid workers and rescuers struggled hard to reach survivors in most of the affected areas. Thousands of people are still living under the open sky with no food, drinking water or medicine. Countless trawlers and fishing boats remain missing with hope diminishing fast for any survivors.

The government meanwhile yesterday deployed military ships, aircrafts and helicopters to strengthen the rescue drive and relief operation. Riding on ships, Navy personnel and Coast Guards began searching through coastal regions on Friday for missing people. About 3,000 troops from different garrisons were also rushed to the cyclone-affected areas, and air force helicopters and aircrafts dropped emergency relief supplies on inaccessible localities.

The relatively low death toll however surprised many and appeared to demonstrate the effectiveness of the government disaster preparations. However there were concerns that many people in the region had failed to react to the warnings as previous storms forecast by the Met office had not materialised.

People in Barguna, a district that was hit badly by Sidr, lost their faith in weather forecasts when the Met office predictions, including that of a Tsunami, were not fulfilled. “They indeed learned a wrong lesson as they turned a deaf ear to government's evacuation warning, only to pay dearly,” Advocate Shahjahan, chairman of the Barguna municipality, told The Daily Star.

Around 500 people used to live at the Mazer Char and 60 of them laughed off the weather warning. “We failed to convince them that disaster was imminent. God knows, what really happened to them,” said the chairman, adding that the actual death toll in Barguna was far beyond the government record of 362.

Out of five upazilas and a thana in Barguna, the Red Crescent volunteers could collect death record in three upazilas Sadar, Amtali and Patharghata-- that already leaped to 360. “As per our find, 300 others are still missing in these three upazilas,” said Golam Hyder Nelu, secretary of the Barguna Red Crescent.

Meanwhile, the Barguna Press Club General Secretary Hasan Jhantu told The Daily Star that they had reports of 528 deaths, basing on information from union parishad chairmen and the Red Crescent.

The confusion over death figures appeared in almost all districts, with fate of population on vulnerable islands mostly missing from the government and private record.

During this season, fishermen in thousands gather on Dublar Char. They camp there and do the fishing braving rough weather. Two fishermen--Milon and Wahed-- survived from Dublar Char surge yesterday told a Khulna reporter, Gourango Nandi, that around 7,000 fishermen were staying on the island this time. Barely dodging the death, Wahed found Milon floating unconsciously on the waters of a khal near Dublar Char 32 hours after the storm.

“They used to take refuge in hundreds of khals (channels) in the Sundarbans whenever the sea gets rough and come back after the storms die down,” said a top government official in Bagerhat. “This time they took refuge in khals but did never come back.”

According to the latest government toll, the cyclone killed 610 in Bagerhat, 362 in Barguna, 285 in Patuakhali, 254 in Pirojpur, 83 in Barisal, 34 in Jhalakathi, 30 in Madaripur, 29 in Gopalganj, 23 in Bhola, 15 in Shariatpur, 14 in Khulna, 13 in Satkhira, 11 in Faridpur, four each in Dhaka, Chandpur, and Munshiganj, and two each in Laxmipur, and Narayanganj, one each in Jessore, Chittagong, Rajbari, Narsingdi, and Narail.

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