Dhaka: Bangladesh is facing massive devastation after a powerful cyclone ripped through its southwestern coast before sweeping north towards the capital Dhaka.
The eye of cyclone Sidr, shown in satellite images as a huge swirling white mass moving in from the Bay of Bengal, hit land on Thursday evening.
Ferocious winds and rains uprooted trees, destroyed countless flimsy bamboo and tin homes and snapped phone and power lines.
“There are no reports of deaths so far. We cannot get out to get much information because of the severe storm,” Kamal, a relief and rehabilitation officer, told AFP by telephone.
Southern areas were plunged into darkness as electricity supplies were snapped and “innumerable” homes were flattened, a report by the private UNB news agency said quoting correspondents.
Officials reported wind speeds of 220 to 240 kilometres (140 to 155 miles) an hour in what they described as one of the worst storms in years.
Thousands of people in the southwest of the country have been moved to special evacuation shelters in a bid to avoid mass casulaties caused by previous cyclones.
Although officials said they were optimistic that the death toll would turn out to be low, they feared daylight would reveal widespread destruction.
“We expect the damage to be enormous,” said an official of the disaster management and relief ministry. So far only one casualty has been reported -- an elderly man who died when a small boat carrying 17 people across a river in southern Satkhira district capsized during the storm. All of the other passengers were able to swim to shore, an official said.
Experts described Sidr as similar in strength to the 1991 storm that triggered a tidal wave that killed an estimated 138,000 people.
Another cyclone in 1970 killed up to half a million people in the disaster-prone and impoverished country. But Bangladesh has since then moved to set up a complex early warning system and evacuation programme targeting those in low-lying coastal areas which are prone to flooding.
The head of the Bangladeshi meteorological department, Samarendra Karmakar, said he was optimistic that the evacuation programme would spare the country the huge loss of life seen in previous decades.
“It is not less severe than the 1991 cyclone, in some places it is more severe. But we are expecting less casualties this time because the government took early measures. We alerted people to be evacuated early,” he said.
Karmakar said rivers in the Sunderbans area, a vast mangrove forest straddling the India-Bangladesh border and the natural habitat of endangered Royal Bengal tigers, had severely swollen as the storm moved north in the direction of Dhaka.
Meanwhile, the main sea port at Chittagong, to the east of the cyclone’s path, was shut down as a precaution.