Chittagong: Bangladesh is evacuating one million people with Cyclone Mahasen expected to hit its low-lying delta coast on Thursday evening, said the United Nations, which estimated 4.1 million people were at risk due to gale-force winds, heavy rain and flooding. Bangladesh has raised its storm warning to seven, on a scale with a maximum of 10, as Mahasen approaches one of the poorest countries in Asia with winds of around 60 mph.
The storm has already killed at least seven people and displaced 3,881 in Sri Lanka as it tracked across the Bay of Bengal towards Bangladesh. A boat carrying Rohingya Muslims in neighbouring Myanmar capsized at around midnight on Monday after hitting rocks off Pauktaw in Rakhine State while evacuating ahead of the storm. Official media said 42 people were rescued but 58 were missing.
Mahasen weakened slightly overnight, but remained a category 1 cyclone as it continued its northeast path towards Bangladesh. "The government has ordered the evacuation of about one million people from 15 coastal districts," said the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
"As per the latest storm trajectory, 4.1 million people have been identified as living in at risk areas in the districts of Chittagong and Cox's Bazar," it said in its latest update. A storm surge of up to 2.1 meters (seven feet) is expected to hit Bangladesh's delta, with cyclone-whipped waves already washing the coast.
The port in Chittagong, which has a population of about three million, and the airport in Cox's Bazar were closed on Wednesday. "Mahasen will make landfall on Thursday evening, local time, bringing heavy rain to much of the region and gusty winds to southern Bangladesh and western Myanmar," said meteorologists at Accuweather.com storm forecasters.
"Mudslides will also be a concern as the heavy rain spreads farther north and east on Thursday night and Friday into easternmost India and northern Myanmar." Meteorologists said Mahasen should weaken quickly once it makes landfall.
"Pray to Allah"
Bangladesh has more than 1,400 cyclone-proof buildings on standby, but across its eastern border in Myanmar tens of thousands of people on the coast are sheltering in makeshift camps and huts made of timber and palm fronds. In 2008, Cyclone Nargis killed up to 140,000 people in Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta, south of the main city, Yangon.
According to the US-based Tropical Storm Risk, Mahasen should track northeast after hitting Chittagong, missing Myanmar, before weakening into a tropical rain depression. The Myanmar government had planned to move 38,000 internally displaced people, most of them Rohingya Muslims, by Tuesday but many have refused to relocate from camps in Rakhine State in the west of the country, afraid of the authorities' intentions.
At least 192 people were killed in June and October last year in violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya, who are denied citizenship by the government in Myanmar and considered by many Buddhists to be immigrants from Bangladesh. At a camp near the sea on the outskirts of Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, several people told Reuters on Wednesday they would rather perish in the storm than evacuate.
"We arrived here last year because of the clashes between Rakhine and Muslims. I lost everything. Both my mother and my two young daughters died," said Hla Maung, 38, a Muslim. "If the cyclone hits here, I will pray to Allah. Everyone here wants to die in the storm because we lost everything last year." Myanmar is a mainly Buddhist country but about 5 per cent of its 60 million people are Muslims. They face a growing anti-Muslim campaign led by radical Buddhist monks. A Reuters Special Report found apartheid-like policies were segregating Muslims from Buddhists in Rakhine State.