x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Cyclone Mahasen slams into Bangladesh after mass evacuations

Four people died as Mahasen hit Bangladesh's Patuakhali coast, officials say, as rain and strong winds also lash neighbouring Myanmar's northwest coast.

Bangladeshi evacuees wait for Cyclone Mahasen to subside in a shelter in Chittagong. Munir uz Zaman / AFP Photo
Bangladeshi evacuees wait for Cyclone Mahasen to subside in a shelter in Chittagong. Munir uz Zaman / AFP Photo

CHITTAGONG, BANGLADESH // Cyclone Mahasen slammed into Bangladesh today as up to a million people took cover in evacuation shelters, including in a region of Myanmar torn by communal unrest.

Four people died as Mahasen hit Bangladesh's Patuakhali coast, officials said. Rain and strong winds lashed neighbouring Myanmar's northwest coast, home to tens of thousands of displaced Muslim Rohingya.

Weather officials said the cyclone hit Sitakundu, near the Bangladeshi city of Chittagong, at midday and was moving towards the Cox's Bazaar tourist district. But fears of widespread damage receded as Mahasen lost much of its punch.

"It is not a severe cyclone," Shamsuddun Ahmed, deputy director of the Bangladesh Meteorological Department, said.

It made landfall with winds of up to 100 kilometres per hour but "significantly weakened after making landfall", he said.

Provincial administrator Nurul Amin said four people died in the storm, including one who drowned and another hit by a falling tree, while dozens of flimsy mud and tin houses were flattened.

About 50 Rohingya remained missing after their boat capsized on Monday as they tried to escape the oncoming storm.

Low-lying areas were submerged by a one-metre (three-foot) storm surge — smaller than feared. "We're lucky it hit the coast during low tide," said Mr Ahmed.

About a million people spent the night in 3,000 cyclone shelters, schools and colleges along Bangladesh's long coastline which is home to 30 million people.

Jahangir Alam, 22, carried his disabled mother to the third floor of a Chittagong school that became a makeshift shelter. "We didn't want to take any risk," he said.

Chan Mia, 50, who brought his family of seven to the same shelter, said the main worry was over storm surges "that can sweep the village within minutes".

Of the total evacuated, 600,000 people were in the Chittagong region, provincial administrator Mohammad Abdullah said.

"We have enough food, medicine and other facilities in these shelters," he said, adding the armed forces were on standby.

Mohammad Mehrajuddin, a government official in southern Nijhum Dwip island, said many villagers refused to move to shelters for fear their cattle would be stolen.

There was a similar reluctance to move among the Muslim Rohingya across the border in Myanmar's Rakhine state, reflecting a mistrust of security forces and of local Buddhists after communal violence last year.

Myanmar state media said that by Wednesday 70,000 people had been evacuated from the camps and vulnerable villages.

Half the residents at a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) on the outskirts of the Rakhine capital Sittwe appeared to have left overnight.

Than Win, 38, was among those who stayed to guard his tent.

"Some of the IDPs do not trust the authorities," he said. "They worry they will be kept elsewhere and will never be able to come back."

Buddhist-Muslim clashes in the region last year left about 200 people dead and neighbourhoods burned to the ground.

In Sittwe, where skies cleared this afternoon, Myanmar authorities said they would order those most at risk to leave the camps if it became dangerous.

"If they still refuse to leave when the critical time comes, we will force them to move their old people, women and children living in these tents," Hla Thein, chief justice of Rakhine state, said.

"But the wind's not very strong and the rain is not so heavy," he added. "As there wasn't much sign of a storm, some people think it's too much trouble to move."