DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) – Hundreds of thousands of survivors were stuck Saturday behind roads blocked by fallen trees, iron roofs and thick sludge as rescue workers fought to reach towns along Bangladesh’s coast that were ravaged by a powerful cyclone that killed at least 1,723 people.
Tropical Cyclone Sidr, the deadliest storm to hit the country in a decade, destroyed tens of thousands of homes in southwest Bangladesh on Thursday and ruined much-needed crops just before harvest season in this impoverished, low-lying South Asian country. More than a million coastal villagers were forced to evacuate to government shelters.
The official death toll rose to 1,723 and authorities feared the figure could rise further as the country works to recover.
The government scrambled Saturday to join international agencies and local officials in the rescue mission, deploying military helicopters, thousands of troops and naval ships.
Rescuers trying to get food and water to people stranded by flooding struggled to clear roads that were so bad they said they’ll have to return on bicycles.
“We will try again tomorrow on bicycles, and hire local country boats,” M. Shakil Anwar of CARE said from the city of Khulna.
Along the coast, 150 mph winds flung small ferries ashore like toy boats, cutting off migrant fishing communities who live on and around hundreds of tiny islands across the area’s web of river channels.
Many of the evacuees who managed to return home Saturday found their straw and bamboo huts had been flattened by 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.
Bodies were found among muddy paddy fields and along river channels, said Bishnu Prashad Chakravorty, a local journalist who visited the hard-hit coastal area of Bagerhat.
“Advance warnings from the weather office helped us take shelter, but still, the damage is colossal,” said Abu Hanif, 60, a Bagerhat resident.
The government has allocated $5.2 million in emergency aid for rebuilding houses in the cyclone-affected areas, a government statement said.
The German government offered $731,345 while the European Union released $2.2 million in relief aid. The World Food Program was rushing food to the country.
Bangladesh’s interim government head, Fakhruddin Ahmed, visited some of the affected areas Friday and Saturday and assured cyclone victims of government assistance.
Bangladesh President Iajuddin Ahmed, meanwhile, was expected to visit some of the worst-hit areas in coming days.
Aid organizations feared that food shortages and contaminated water could lead to widespread problems if people remain stranded.
Television images showed crowds of people scrambling beneath military helicopters as troops dropped food packages through open hatches.
At least 1.5 million coastal villagers had fled to shelters where they were given emergency rations, said senior government official Ali Imam Majumder in Dhaka.
Many parts of Dhaka, the biggest city in this poor, desperately crowded nation of 150 million people, remained without power or water Saturday. The storm killed at least four people in Dhaka.
More than 4,000 people were injured, military spokesman Lt. Col. Moyeenullah Chowdhury said. Army medical teams were working in the affected area.
An estimated 2.7 million people were affected and 773,000 houses were damaged, according to the Ministry of Disaster Management. Roughly 250,000 head of cattle and poultry perished, and crops were destroyed on nearly 77,450 acres of land.
But the full picture of the devastation remained unclear as the storm wreaked havoc on the country’s electricity and telephone lines, affecting even areas that were spared a direct hit.
Sidr spawned a 4-foot 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.
CARE’s Anwar said many surviving families were living under makeshift tents or sheds made out of the remnants of their straw and bamboo homes, while many others had to go back to the official shelters.
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.