Three dead as Cyclone Mocha hits Bangladesh, Myanmar

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By Webdesk

Thousands of people have sheltered in monasteries, pagodas and schools seeking shelter from a powerful storm that swept across the coast of Myanmar and southeastern Bangladesh on Sunday.

When Cyclone Mocha crashed ashore, it uprooted trees, scattered flimsy houses in Rohingya displacement camps in Bangladesh, and caused storm surge in low-lying areas.

Rescue services in Myanmar said two people died in a landslide, while local media reported the death of a man in Myanmar after a tree fell on him.

With winds of up to 195 km/h (120 mph), Mocha swept between Cox’s Bazar, home to nearly a million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, and Sittwe in Myanmar, according to the Bangladesh Weather Bureau.

Streets in Sittwe turned to rivers as the biggest storm to hit the Bay of Bengal in more than a decade swept through the seaside town.

Al Jazeera’s Tanvir Chowdhury said the main Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar was spared the cyclone’s central thrust. The wind speed was high, with “more drizzle than torrential rain,” Chowdhury said.

He said while damage assessments were underway it would take time to determine.

“It will take days and weeks to confirm the real damage [from the cyclone] as there are several small scattered coastal islands where fishermen have no means of communication and do not heed warnings,” Chowdhury reported from Cox’s Bazar.

Myanmar’s military information agency said the cyclone damaged homes, electrical transformers, mobile phone towers, boats and lampposts in Sittwe, Kyaukpyu and Gwa townships. It said the storm also tore roofs off sports facilities in the Coco Islands, about 425 km (264 mi) southwest of the country’s largest city, Yangon.

A rescue team from the eastern Shan state of the country announced on its Facebook page that they had recovered the bodies of a couple buried when a landslide caused by torrential rain hit their home in Tachileik township.

Local media reported that a man was crushed when a banyan tree fell on him in Pyin Oo Lwin township in Myanmar’s central Mandalay region.

In Sittwe, a mobile phone mast collapsed due to strong winds and other buildings were damaged, local media reported.

More than 4,000 of Sittwe’s 300,000 residents were evacuated to other towns and more than 20,000 people are taking shelter in sturdy buildings such as monasteries, pagodas and schools in the city’s highlands, said Tin Nyein Oo, who volunteers at shelters in Sittwe.

Many local people live in elevated areas more than 3 meters above sea level, where residents believe the storm surge cannot come, he added.

Titon Mitra, United Nations Development Program representative in Myanmar, tweeted: “Mocha has come ashore. 2 million people at risk. Damage and losses are expected to be extensive. We are ready to respond and need unimpeded access to all affected communities.”

Authorities in Cox’s Bazar, which was in the storm’s predicted path, previously said they had evacuated some 1.27 million people, but by early afternoon it looked like the storm would largely miss land as it veered eastward, said Azizur Rahman, director of the Bangladesh Meteorological Department in Dhaka.

“The level of risk has largely decreased in Bangladesh,” he told reporters.

Strong winds accompanied by rain continued through the afternoon on Saint Martin’s Island in the Bay of Bengal, but the feared tidal waves did not materialize as the cyclone began to cross the Bangladesh coast at low tide.

Communication networks in Rakhine were disrupted after the cyclone made landfall, the UN and local media said.

“It is a nightmare scenario for a cyclone to strike an area already in such great humanitarian need, affecting hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people whose survival has been severely compromised by successive crises,” said UN coordinator Ramanathan Balakrishnan.

Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune, India, said cyclones in the Bay of Bengal are intensifying at a faster rate, partly due to climate change.

Al Jazeera’s Chowdhury said Bangladesh’s cyclone warning systems were “some of the best among developing countries” and have helped save lives in recent years.

“People are always days ahead of the potential hazards of the cyclone with the help of warnings, volunteers and mobile apps,” he said, adding that while property, crops and livestock could be damaged, “lives are being saved.”

In this image from a video, a tree falls on an empty road as Cyclone Mocha approaches in Sittwe, Rakhine State, Myanmar
In this frame from a video, a tree falls on a road as Cyclone Mocha approaches Sittwe in Myanmar on May 14, 2023. Bangladesh and Myanmar braced themselves on Sunday as the extremely severe cyclone began to hit coastal areas and authorities urged thousands of people in both countries to seek shelter [AP Photo]

‘We’re scared’

The wind tore apart tarpaulin and bamboo houses at a camp for displaced Rohingya in Kyaukphyu in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

Residents watched the rising sea levels in fear, camp leader Khin Shwe told AFP.

“We are now going to check if the sea water is increasing towards our place… if the sea water is rising, our camp could be flooded,” said Khin Shwe.

In Teknaf, Bangladesh, strong winds have uprooted trees, brought traffic to a standstill and forced residents to flee for cover, an AFP correspondent said.

“Our camp houses, which are built with bamboo and tarpaulins, can be blown away in soft, light winds,” 28-year-old Mohammad Sayed told AFP from Nayapara refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar.

“The schools, which are designated as cyclone shelters… are not strong shelters that can withstand the winds of a cyclone. We are afraid.”

Thousands left Sittwe on Saturday, packed into trucks, cars and tuk-tuks and headed inland for higher elevations, as meteorologists warned of a storm surge of up to 3.5 meters (11 feet).

“We are not doing well, because we have not brought food and other things to cook,” said Maung Win, 57, who spent the night in a shelter in the town of Kyauktaw further inland. “We can only wait to get food from people’s donations.”

Bangladeshi authorities had secured 190,000 people in Cox’s Bazar and nearly 100,000 in Chittagong, division commissioner Aminur Rahman told AFP on Saturday.

The Myanmar Red Cross said it was “preparing for a major emergency response”.

In Bangladesh, authorities have banned Rohingya refugees from building concrete houses, fearing it would encourage them to settle permanently rather than return to Myanmar, which they fled five years ago after a brutal military crackdown.

The camps are generally slightly inland, but most are built on slopes, exposing them to the threat of landslides.

Forecasters expect the cyclone to bring a torrent of rain, which could trigger landslides.

“The winds started around 8:30 this morning and are getting stronger,” a Rohingya community leader in the Kyaukphyu displaced persons camp told AFP.

“A house in the camp collapsed and the roof of a shelter built by UNHCR [the UN High Commissioner for Refugees] was blown away,” they said, asking for anonymity.

Hundreds of people also fled Bangladesh’s Saint Martin’s Island, a local resort town right in the storm’s path, and thousands more moved to cyclone shelters on the coral rock.

The stragglers said they feared the storm coming.

“We are in a panic because we don’t have enough cyclone shelters here,” 23-year-old Saint Martin resident Jahangir Sarwar told AFP by phone.

“We have often asked the administrators to evacuate everyone to a safe place in the mainland town of Teknaf. But no action was taken.”

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