- By Rajini Vaidyanathan
- In Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh
A powerful cyclone hit the coasts of Bangladesh and Myanmar and has since intensified to a category five storm.
Cyclone Mocha did not make landfall at the sprawling refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar as previously feared, but still tore through hundreds of makeshift shelters.
At least 6 people have died in Myanmar.
Residents told the BBC that up to 90 percent of Sittwe, the capital of western Rakhine state, had been destroyed.
The Burmese Army has declared the entire Rakhine as a natural disaster zone.
By late Sunday, the storm had mostly passed. Kamrul Hasan, Bangladesh’s disaster official, said the cyclone “did not cause major damage”, but landslides and floods were still hitting the country. No casualties have been reported in Bangladesh so far.
Myanmar appears to have had the most direct impact, with the storm cutting down homes and power lines in Rakhine state. Myanmar’s Meteorological Department said it lashed the country at 209km/h (130 mph).
Camps for displaced Rohingyas in the state have also been demolished.
Local media reported that the dead included a 14-year-old boy – who was killed by a falling tree in the state.
Electricity and wireless connections were cut across most of Sittwe. Online footage shows roofs blown off houses, telecommunications towers flattened and billboards blown off buildings amid torrential rains across the region.
Officials have declared Rakhine state a natural disaster area, while the Myanmar Red Cross said it was “preparing for a major emergency response”.
Authorities have evacuated 750,000 people in Bangladesh ahead of the storm.
The streets of Cox’s Bazar emptied as the cyclone intensified – the sky darkened, the wind picked up and the rain poured down.
Hundreds of people crowded into a school that had been converted into a temporary hurricane shelter.
Mothers with children, small children, the elderly and the infirm crammed into any available space in the classrooms, sleeping on desks and sitting under them.
Many came to the shelter in rickshaws and cattle, bringing their livestock — cattle, chickens, goats — as well as mats to sleep on.
They came up to two hours from fishing and coastal villages, a difficult choice.
Sumi Akhter, a resident of the river, said, “I don’t want to leave home.
Sumi and others we met here say they’ve lived through other cyclones in recent years and resigned themselves to the usual practice of leaving their homes at the mercy of nature.
A storm surge of up to four meters will swamp villages in low-lying areas. Sumi and others here fear that their houses will be submerged.
“I wish the houses we lived in were built stronger,” he said.
17-year-old Jannath, whom we had met the day before at the same shelter, said he too was afraid of what would happen to his house by the river.
Last year, another cyclone, Chitrang, destroyed her house, forcing her to spend what little money she had on repairing it.
“How can I live if this keeps happening? I can’t afford to rebuild it – we’re too poor,” he said.
Nature was also punishing the poor in the world’s largest refugee camp nearby.
The Bangladeshi government has not allowed Rohingya refugees to leave the camps or build permanent structures.
When the typhoon hit, they huddled in flimsy bamboo shelters with tarpaulin roofs. Some were moved to community shelters within the camps, which offered even less protection.
Officials told the BBC that more than 1,300 shelters, including 16 mosques and learning centers, had been damaged by the winds. The two landslides also caused some damage, with trees falling on camps.
The tarpaulin covering Mohammad Ayub’s shelter was torn by the wind. Now he and his family of eight live in the open in wet and bad weather.
While Mohammed spent days fearing what Cyclone Mocha might bring, the camps were not directly affected by the storm.
Mizanur Rahman from the Commissioner for Refugee Relief and Resettlement said that as far as he knew, there were no casualties in the camps as a result of the cyclone.
Forecasters have warned that Cyclone Mocha could be the most powerful storm to hit Bangladesh in two decades.
Maximum sustained winds 75 km (45 mi) from the cyclone’s center were 195 km/h (120 mph), with gusts of up to 215 km/h, according to the Bangladesh Meteorological Department.
In preparation for the storm’s arrival, nearby airports were closed, fishermen were ordered to suspend their work and 1,500 shelters were set up as people moved from vulnerable areas to safer places.
In 2008, Cyclone Nargis tore through Myanmar’s southern coast, killing nearly 140,000 people and severely affecting millions more. Most of the dead were killed by 3.5 meters of water that hit the low-lying Irrawaddy delta.
Additional report on Kelly Engine in Singapore