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Relief turns to anguish as Cyclone Mahasen passes

Bangladesh death toll was low, but livelihoods are damaged

Relief turns to anguish as Cyclone Mahasen passes

A Kalapara woman returns to her devastated house after Cyclone Mahasen reporters, Patuakhali and Bagerhat

May 21, 2013

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Saleha Begum breathed a sigh of relief when tropical Cyclone Mahasen weakened as it passed over Bangladesh on Thursday. She, her husband Rabiul Islam and their four children spent the night in a cyclone shelter, about one km from their village home at Kalapara, in the Patuakhali district of southwest Bangladesh.

The cyclone warning had lifted by noon Friday and they hurried back home, only to find their tin-roofed house and all their belongings destroyed by the strong winds. Hundreds of their fellow villagers suffered the  same fate.

“We were struck dumb when we reached home. There was nothing salvageable except a few kilograms of rice and some vegetables,” said Saleha.

Since the disaster, the villagers have been living out in the open; only a few, like Saleha’s family, have managed to build makeshift tents with polythene to shelter from rainfall. 

On Saturday, each family received 20kg of rice from the district administration, but the help seems insufficient.

“We are suffering from a drinking water crisis. Two of my children are suffering from diarrhea. We need medical support immediately,” said Saleha, who is no stranger to storms and cyclones. In 2009, Cyclone Aila wrecked their house, but they rebuilt it with a 20,000 taka (US$250) loan from a local NGO. Rabiul, an agricultural laborer, said the cyclone has submerged fields and destroyed crops. So as well as wiping out food stocks, it has left men like Rabiul with no way to earn a living.

“The assistance will finish one day. What shall we eat then? Without a regular income we can’t manage food for the family,” he said.   

Low-lying Patuakhali is among 10 coastal districts, standing just a meter above sea level, that were hit hardest by the cyclone. A district official from Patuakhali said that they were still assessing the cyclone damage and would start offering financial and other aid to the victims soon.

At least 18 people were killed and over 100 injured in the cyclone.  About 100,000 houses were destroyed and thousands of hectares of crops damaged. Bangladeshi coastguards also recovered the bodies of 38 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar after a boat carrying over 200 people capsized just before the cyclone arrived.

Bangladeshi authorities claim that the death toll and damage was relatively low due to timely preparations and the evacuation of up to one million people.

There were no cyclone casualties in Bagerhat, another coastal district and home to the country’s second largest seaport, Mongla. Officials and farmers in the area say however that seawater from the tidal surge has damaged crops.

“I had planted sunflowers over one hectare and everything was destroyed in the cyclone. It is a big blow for me, because I haven’t fully recovered from the damage from Cyclone Sidr in 2007,” said Saiful Islam Khokon. 

Fazlul Haque, a Bagerhat agricultural official, said about 45 hectares of sunflower crops were destroyed in the cyclone.

Bangladesh sits on the floodplain of the world’s largest river delta system, which empties into the Bay of Bengal. About 30 million people live in 16 districts along the country’s winding coastline, putting them at risk of natural disasters like floods, cyclones, storms and tidal surges.

Every year hundreds die in flooding, but the impacts of cyclones are often more lasting. In 1970, a cyclone claimed about 500,000 lives; around 150,000 died in another cyclone in 1991, while Cyclone Sidr in 2007 claimed some 3,000 lives.

Most Bangladeshis living along the coast have little option to change their fortunes by relocating themselves. “Every time a storm or cyclone comes I think about whether we could move somewhere else,” Saleha said. “But it’s not possible because we were born here and have relatives. Most of all, we don’t have money to move.” 

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