Bangladesh Cyclone Death Toll Now 1,723

Relatives mourn the death of their beloved ones in Taful village of Bagherhat district on the south coast of Bangladesh, 17 November 2007, two days after a strong cyclone devastated the southern coastal area of the country. Bangladesh said it feared thousands of corpses were littering its southern coast after the worst cyclone in years tore through the impoverished and low-lying area. Officials said the army and relief workers were still battling to reach the worst-hit districts, where village after village were flattened when cyclone Sidr smashed into the disaster-prone nation overnight 15 November. AFP PHOTO/Jewel SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Getty Images/Jewel Samad
The official death toll from a savage cyclone that wreaked havoc on southwest Bangladesh reached 1,723 Saturday - the deadliest storm to hit the country in a decade.

Military helicopters and ships joined rescue and relief operations and aid workers on the ground struggled to reach victims. Tropical Cyclone Sidr tore apart villages and forced more than a million coastal villagers to evacuate to government shelters.

Millions more are without power.

The latest death figure tallied to 1,723, with 474 deaths reported from worst-hit Barguna district and 385 from neighboring Patuakhali, a military spokesman, Lt. Col. Moyeenullah Chowdhury, told reporters in the capital, Dhaka.

"Cyclones are not new to Bangladesh, but this one definitely was very, very different, because of the wind speed that I saw, of 240 to 285 kilometers (per hour) [approximately 150 to 175 mph]," Vince Edwards of the aid organization Worldvision told CBS News.

The government reports about 280,000 households have been fully or partially destroyed, said Edwards.

Rescuers battled along roads that were washed out or blocked by wind-blown debris to try to get water and food to people stranded by flooding. Some employed the brute force of elephants to help in their efforts.

On Saturday, the army deployed helicopters to deliver supplies to the remotest areas, while navy ships delivered supplies and dispensed medical assistance to migrant fishing communities living on and around hundreds of tiny islands, or shoals, along the coast, the Inter Services Public Relations department said in a statement.

The Ministry of Disaster Management, which has struggled to collect detailed information from the devastated area because of the disruptions to power and communications, put the official death toll Saturday at 932.

"The toll is rising fast, as we receive more information from outlying areas where telephone lines have been restored," said Mokhlesur Rahman, a ministry official in Dhaka, the capital.

At least 270 people died in Patuakhali south of Dhaka, while neighboring Barguna suffered at least 160 deaths, Rahman added.

The United News of Bangladesh news agency, which has reporters deployed across the devastated region, said the count from each affected district left an overall death toll of at least 1,100.

The damage to livelihood, housing and crops will be "extremely severe," John Holmes, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said Friday, adding that the world body was making millions of dollars in aid available to Bangladesh.

Several international humanitarian organizations, like UNICEF and CARE, were working alongside government and local volunteer agencies to provide safe drinking water and emergency supplies in the affected areas.

"We are hopeful that emergency preparedness in place and quick action has successfully reduced the loss of human life," Suman Islam of CARE Bangladesh said in an e-mailed statement.

"But many people are now homeless, crops and livelihoods have been destroyed and this is going to put great pressure on the government, the economy, and the people themselves," he said.

The 150 mph winds wreaked havoc on the country's electricity and telephone lines, affecting even areas that were spared a direct hit, and leaving the full picture of the death and destruction unclear.

Holmes said his U.N. agency believed that more than 20,000 houses were damaged in the hardest-hit districts, and that the death toll was expected to climb beyond the government's figures.

About 150 fishing trawlers were unaccounted for, he said.

Many parts of Dhaka, the biggest city in this poor, desperately crowded nation of 150 million people, remained without power or water Saturday.

The storm killed at least four people in the capital, which was pounded by strong winds and driving rain Friday.

Hasanul Amin, assistant director of the official cyclone preparedness program and the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, said about a dozen teams had been deployed to the worst-hit areas in the country's southwest.

But it was slow going. In the village of Sharankhola, some people waited for hours to get dry biscuits and rice, according to Bishnu Prasad, a United News of Bangladesh reporter on the scene.

"We have lost everything," a farmer, Moshararf Hossain, told Prasad. "We have nowhere to go."

Sidr spawned a 4 foot-high storm surge that swept through low-lying areas and some offshore islands, leaving them under water, said Nahid Sultana, an official of the Ministry of Food and Disaster Management.

At least 1.5 million coastal villagers had fled to shelters where they were given emergency rations, said senior government official Ali Imam Majumder in Dhaka.

Many evacuees returned home Saturday to find their straw and bamboo huts had been flattened by the storm. Some sought refuge with neighbors living in brick houses that withstood the storm.

"We survived, but what we need now is help to rebuild our homes," Chand Miah, a resident of Maran Char, a small island in Khulna district, told the Associated Press.

World Vision is putting together seven-day relief packages for families that will include rice, oil, sugar, salt, candles and blankets, according to Vince Edwards, the agency's Bangladesh director.

But Edwards said debris from the storm has blocked roads and rivers, making it difficult to reach all the areas that had been hit.

"There has been lot of damage to houses made of mud and bamboo, and about 60 to 80 percent of the trees have been uprooted," Edwards said.

By late Friday evening, work had resumed at the country's two main seaports - Chittagong and Mongla - as well Chittagong and Dhaka airports, authorities said.

The storm spared India's eastern coast, where the weather was calm. India's Meteorological Department had forecast heavy rain and flooding in West Bengal and Orissa states.

Bangladesh, a low-lying delta nation, is prone to seasonal cyclones and floods that cause huge loss of life and property.

In 1970, between 300,000 and 500,000 people were killed when a cyclone slammed into the Bangladesh coast, and some 140,000 died in 1991.

After the 1991 cyclone, foreign donors and Bangladeshi government agencies began building emergency shelters - concrete boxes raised on pillars, each able to hold anywhere from a few hundred to 3,000 people.

In June, mudslides, flooding and lightning strikes inundated Bangladeshi cities and killed more than 120 people during the country's annual monsoon season.