Survivors tell of Bangladesh cyclone horror as officials, families search for the dead
BARGUNA, Bangladesh -- Azahar Ali huddled with his family, reading from the Quran, as the cyclone roared in. First the power went out, then screaming winds blew out the windows and ripped off the roof. The sea rushed in, washing him and his family away.
The 80-year-old awoke in a rice paddy to find his son, daughter-in-law, three grandchildren and three other relatives dead, among the more than 3,100 people killed by Cyclone Sidr.
"I have lost everything," he said Monday while recounting the terror of the worst cyclone in more than a decade to hit this low-lying South Asian nation of 150 million people.
Details of the devastation and the stories of the survivors began to emerge as rescuers reached areas cut off four days earlier when the storm washed out roads and downed telephone lines.
At least 3,113 people were known dead and more than 1,000 were missing, said Lt. Col. Main Ullah Chowdhury, an army spokesman. The Red Crescent Society, the Islamic cousin of the Red Cross, warned the death toll could rise to 10,000 once rescuers reach outlying islands.
Mike Kiernan, spokesman for the charity Save the Children, said the final toll could be between 5,000 and 10,000 deaths, but added that "we won't know for certain for days or weeks."
He said hundreds of thousands of people managed to escape physical harm, but many lost their homes and crops.
"Just the fact that people were able to survive this does not mean they will survive the second wave of death that comes from catastrophes like this: from lack of clean water, food, basic medicines and shelter," Kiernan said.
In the village of Parulkhel, residents and rescuers used bamboo poles to probe flooded fields, looking for submerged bodies.
When a woman's corpse was discovered, workers rushed in with sacks and plastic sheet to lift the body out. Onlookers gathered, and one weeping man identified her as his mother.
"Some were identified and taken away by relatives. We buried dozens of others near where we found them," said Ali Akbar, a volunteer.
Survivors picked through the village's wreckage, looking for anything salvageable in a jumble of splintered wood, bamboo and corrugated iron houses, fallen trees and bloated animal carcasses. A stench filled the air.
In the neighboring village of Bainsamarta, Sheikh Mubarak, 40, sat among the ruins of his hut weeping for his 12-year-old daughter.
"As our house was washed away by walls of water, I grabbed my daughter and ran for shelter. The monster waves swept her away from me," he said. "Allah should have taken me instead."
Survivors said many of the deaths could have been prevented but people failed to heed warnings to move to higher ground as the storm approached Thursday.
"`Nothing is going to happen' -- that was our first thought, and we went to bed," said Dhalan Mridha, a 45-year-old farm worker from the village of Galachipa.
"Just before midnight the winds came like hundreds of demons. Our small hut was swept away like a piece of paper, and we all ran for shelter," he said.
On the way, Mridha was separated from his wife, mother and two children. He found their bodies the next morning, stuck in a battered bush.
Government and relief agencies stepped up efforts to get help to devastated areas.
Army helicopters flew in high-protein cookies supplied by the World Food Program, said Emamul Haque, a spokesman for the U.N. agency's office in the capital, Dhaka.
International groups promised initial aid totaling $25 million during a meeting with Bangladesh agencies Monday, Haque said.
Tents, water, rice and other relief items have been slow to reach many.
In the town of Barguna, long lines of anxious people formed at the market, hoping for word that help was on the way. "We have been waiting here for several hours, but no relief," said Uthan Ching, who left clutching an empty plastic bag.
Government officials defended relief efforts and expressed confidence that authorities were up to the task.
"We have enough food and water," said Shahidul Islam, the top official in Bagerhat, a battered district near Barguna. "We are going to overcome the problem."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement that several million dollars were available from the United Nations' emergency response funds, depending on the need.
Many foreign governments and international groups also pledged to help.
The United States offered $2.1 million and two U.S. Marine Corps transport planes arrived in Dhaka with medical supplies, said Chowdhury, the army spokesman.
An American military medical team was already in Bangladesh and two U.S. Navy ships, each carrying at least 20 helicopters and tons of supplies, would be made available if the Bangladesh government requested them, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a statement.
The European Union promised $2.2 million and the British government $5.1 million. Italy's Roman Catholic bishops conference said it would donate $2.9 million. The governments of Germany and France each pledged $730,000, Japan sent $318,000 in relief supplies, and the Philippines said it would provide a medical team.
Bangladesh is a densely populated nation sitting on a vast river delta. Storms batter its low-lying lands every year, often killing large numbers of people. The most deadly recent storm was a tornado that leveled 80 villages in northern Bangladesh in 1996, killing 621 people.
A 1991 cyclone killed about 140,000 people near the city of Chittagong, and a storm in 1985 left some 11,000 dead. One of the worst disasters came in 1970, when a cyclone's 20-foot-high storm surge killed an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 people.