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Official Death Toll in Bangladesh at Nearly 40,000

May 2, 1991

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) _ The official death toll today surpassed 37,000 in the cyclone that ravaged Bangladesh, and the nation’s top relief official said he would not be surprised if more than 100,000 people were killed.

Record 145 mph winds battered coastal areas in Tuesday’s storm, and survivors told of children being swept off islands by swirling sea water.

Lutfar Rahman Khan, the minister of state for relief, said that 37,543 deaths were recorded so far, making it the region’s deadliest storm since 1970, when 500,000 people were killed.

An unofficial tally from politicians and officials in three east coast districts indicated 100,000 people had died.

″Even if the human casualty figures exceed 100,000 we will not be surprised,″ said Khan, who is in charge of the rescue operation.

″Hundreds of bodies have started floating back to the shore,″ Khan told a news conference in Dhaka. ″It is a great tragedy. This is a national crisis.″

He said Bangladesh needed $1.42 billion in emergency relief funds. He warned that without immediate repairs, the country’s main port in Chittagong ″will be lost.″

Khan said the government would need at least 20 helicopters to deliver food and drinking water to remote regions. Government and relief officials said they had reached only half of the 65 islands that were pounded by the cyclone.

Thousands of people remained missing today, and Khan said 100,000 people were without shelter, huddled on earthen mounds that were built to protect cattle grazing areas from flood waters.

″I have lost everything. I have lost everything. God, why has it happened to me?″ sobbed Mufizur Rahman, whose wife, son and three daughters were swept away when the storm hit the eastern island of Kutubdia.

Another villager, Rabeya Begum, said her husband was bitten by a snake when he tried to grab a floating banana tree on which to perch his infant son. He died on the spot, and the son drowned, she said.

Associated Press reporter Osman Gani Mansur said he saw bloated corpses floating alongside dead cattle near Kutubdia.

An unofficial tally from politicians and officials in three east coast districts indicated 100,000 people had died, and they said tens of thousands more were unaccounted for.

Bangladesh, a densely populated low-lying country, repeatedly has been brought to near ruin by storms spawned in the unpredictable Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean.

About 10 million people, most of them fishermen and poor farmers, live on islands along the southern and eastern coasts.

In several areas, 90 percent of the crops reportedly were washed away, and shrimp farms and the salt industry were devastated.

Prime Minister Khaleda Zia met today with representatives of donor countries to plan a strategy for raising emergency aid, in an international relief effort to be coordinated by the United Nations Development Fund, diplomats said.

U.S. Ambassador William B. Milam said the United States was donating $2 million in medical supplies.

The European Community today granted $11.8 million for food, tents, blankets, medicine and other humanitarian aid. The British relief group Oxfam said its workers in Bangladesh began distributing water purification tablets, food, candles and matches.

Communications Minister Oli Ahmed said 25,000 people died in Chittagong alone, Bangladesh’s second-largest city, in the eight-hour storm.

Sultan Kabir Choudhury, a Parliament member from Banshkhali, said 40,000 died in his area 30 miles south of Chittagong.

United News of Bangladesh, quoting radio reports, said Wednesday that 8,000 people died in Kutubdia and that 70,000 others on the island were missing.

Red Crescent officials said they had no word on 30,000 people on the island of Nijhum Deep, which took the full force of the storm.

Since the last devastating cyclone in 1985, the government built up relief programs, erected storm shelters of stone and brick mounted on earthen platforms and built flood embankments on some islands.

Those shelters appeared to have saved thousands of lives on many islands, including Manpura, off the southern coastline 110 miles from Dhaka.

Hours before the storm hit, 20,000 of the island’s 50,000 people had fled to the shelters there.

Bangladesh also is plagued by monsoon rains that often bring floods. Drought is common in the dry months before the rains. The country is one of the world’s poorest and most densely populated nations.

There are about 2,000 people per square mile, the third-highest density in the world after Hong Kong and Singapore. The nation’s 110 million people earn an average $170 a year.

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