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Bangladesh Struggles To Aid Cyclone Survivors, Toll May Hit 100,000

May 2, 1991

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) _ The bodies of thousands of victims killed in a devastating cyclone washed up Thursday on the shores of Bangladesh as the government struggled to provide relief to millions of survivors.

The official death toll for Tuesday’s cyclone, the most powerful to hit this impoverished nation, is 37,543. But tens of thousands are missing on lowlying islands and coastal deltas and Prime Minister Khaleda Zia said at least 100,000 people, and possibly more, could have been killed.

″It is a vast devastation and the loss of human lives could exceed 100,000,″ Mrs. Zia said on state-owned television. ″The information is incomplete. ... We fear it (the toll) could go up much more. I pray to Allah it’s not true.″

She announced special prayers would be held Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, to mourn the victims, and that Saturday would be a national day of mourning.

Relief workers and journalists who visited the stricken region said thousands of decomposed bodies were being brought in by the tides. Survivors searched for missing relatives among the piles of corpses stacked up on beaches.

″I saw deaths, devastation, agony and misery of a magnitude I have never seen before,″ said one photographer who went to the area. ″The bodies were decomposed and the stench was unbearable.″

As the number of bodies floating in increased by the hour, the government struggled to ferry food, water and medicine to the millions of survivors. Vast areas hit by the cyclone were still inaccessible, and helicopters dropped essentials to people huddled on rooftops of marooned buildings.

The scale of the catastrophe at times was almost unfathomable.

Mufizur Rahman, 55, a farmer, said he saw waves ″as high as mountains″ sweep toward his village of Vijandya before blacking out. He came to hours later to find his wife, son and three daughters had been swept away.

Another villager, Rabeya Begum, said her husband was bitten by a snake while trying to grab a floating banana tree on which to perch their infant son. She said her husband died on the spot and the baby drowned.

Six members of Shafi Alam’s family were lost, he said, but he saved one son by lashing him to a coconut tree.

Relief agencies worldwide began sending aid. Workers from the London-based relief agency, Oxfam, were among the first on the scene, pushing into areas hit hardest by the cyclone to hand out water purification tablets, food, candles and matches from stocks in Bangladesh.

Relief officials warned of the outbreak of disease in crowded cyclone shelters and relief camps. Emdad Hossain, the head of relief operations of the Red Crescent Society, said many people were drinking salty and muddy water and eating half-cooked fish.

As Hossain spoke to a reporter in his Dhaka office, a message came across on the wireless radio next to his desk.

″Water, we need potable water, sir,″ said a voice over the radio. ″People are dying of exposure and hunger, sir.″

Hossain said it was a message from one of the Red Crescent’s field officers, based in Teknaf island off the southeastern coast.

The government says 10 million people lived in the area, which was battered by 20-foot-high waves and winds reaching up to 145 mph.

At least 90 percent of them lost their homes, mud and straw huts that were submerged by waves or blown away. Tens of thousands of people, mainly the inhabitants of remote islands near the coast, are missing.

″It is a great tragedy,″ said Luftar Rahman Khan, the minister of state for relief. ″This is a national crisis.″

The minister painted a grim picture of the colossal damage that destroyed Bangladesh’s main harbor, wiped out much of its current rice crop and threatened next year’s crop by splashing paddies with salt water. Seventy percent of the cattle in the area drowned.

The storm flattened wide areas along the east coast from north of the port of Chittagong to Cox’s Bazaar near the Burmese border, which took the full force of the storm.

Foreign diplomats said Mrs. Zia’s 6-week-old government seemed to be grappling with the relief effort as well as it could.

″But they’ve admitted that the need outstrips their ability to meet it,″ said a Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Khan said that according to preliminary estimates, Bangladesh needed $1.42 billion in emergency funds to overcome the crisis. ″We need generous donations from foreign countries,″ he said.

Six merchant ships and two naval vessels were partially sunk, he said. ″It looks as if we do not take immediate action, our Chittagong port, which is the lifeline of Bangladesh, will be lost,″ he said.

The cyclone is the most powerful to hit Bangladesh. But the number of deaths is below the toll of a storm in 1970, which claimed 500,000 lives. Another massive cyclone in 1985 killed 10,000 people.

Since then, the government has built up relief facilities, erected storm shelters of stone and brick mounted on earthen platforms and built flood embankments on some islands exposed to the fury of the sea.

A lowlying country on the delta of three great Himalayan rivers, Bangladesh is repeatedly savaged by storms arising in the unpredictable Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean.

The monsoon rains often brings floods, and drought is common in the dry months before the rains.

Bangladesh is one of the world’s poorest and most densely packed countries. Its 110 million people earn an average of $170 a year. About 2,000 people live in an average square mile, third-highest after Hong Kong and Singapore.

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