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Lucky escape as cyclone weakens inland

Fatalities and damage much less than feared

Lucky escape as cyclone weakens inland

A Bangladeshi police officer clears a beach in Chittagong on Thursday as Cyclone Mahasen moved closer to landfall (AFP photo/Munir Uz Zaman)

Kamrul Hasan Khan, AFP

May 16, 2013

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A cyclone slammed into the Bangladesh coast on Thursday, forcing the evacuation of a million people, but fears of devastating damage eased when the storm weakened as it moved over land.

Authorities breathed a sigh of relief after Cyclone Mahasen, which was packing winds of 100kph when it powered into the low-lying southeastern coast, lost much of its punch after making landfall.

“We're lucky,” Shamsuddun Ahmed, deputy head of the Bangladesh Meteorological Department, said, adding it was not a severe cyclone and had been downgraded to a tropical depression.

But at least 11 people were killed by drowning and falling trees, officials said, while tens of thousands of mud, tin and straw-built homes were flattened by pounding rains and flooding.

A million people spent the night in 3,000 cyclone shelters, schools and colleges along Bangladesh's winding long coastline which is home to 30 million people, Chittagong district administrator Mohammad Abdullah said.

“The number of casualties were minimum because of our preparations,” disaster management minister Mahmud Ali told reporters in the capital.

Jahangir Alam, 22, carried his paralysed 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”.

Rain and strong winds also lashed neighboring Myanmar's northwest coast, home to tens of thousands of displaced Muslim Rohingya, but the country was largely spared the brunt of the storm.

About 50 Rohingya from Myanmar went missing after their boat capsized Monday as they tried to escape the oncoming storm.

Of the one million evacuated in Bangladesh, 600,000 were in the Chittagong region, Abdullah said, adding many now have moved back to their villages.

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

There was a similar reluctance to move among the Rohingya 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, according to journalists who visited Thursday.

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 neighborhoods burned to the ground.

In Sittwe, where skies cleared by Thursday afternoon, Myanmar authorities said they would order those most at risk to leave the camps if the situation deteriorated.

“But the wind's not very strong and the rain is not so heavy,'' Hla Thein, chief justice of Rakhine state, said. “As there wasn't much sign of a storm, some people think it's too much trouble to move.''

Bangladesh and Myanmar have been frequent victims of cyclones that have killed hundreds of thousands of people in recent decades. AFP

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