A severe cyclone has killed more than 500 people in Bangladesh and left thousands injured or missing, triggering an international relief effort to help the country cope with its latest disaster.
Local officials and Red Crescent workers said 508 deaths had been confirmed. Hundreds more were injured or missing after Cyclone Sidr struck last night. Winds reached over 250 km/h.
The Category 4 cyclone triggered a five-metre high tidal surge that devastated three coastal towns and forced 3.2 million people to evacuate.
"The death count is rising fast as we get more information from the affected districts," a food and disaster ministry said.
Dhaka, and all other major cities across the country were plunged into darkness. Many power plants and most distribution systems were damaged by the cyclone and it could take three more days to restore services.
The tidal surge inundated Patuakhali, Barguna and Jhalakathi, cutting off communication links to the three towns. An official in Dhaka had no information yet about casualties from the area.
Most deaths were caused by collapsing houses and flying debris, officials in Dhaka said.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told reporters in Geneva 1,000 fishermen were missing. "Significant damage is expected. However, information collection on casualty and damage figures is still very much in the early stages," OCHA spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said.
At least 150 trawlers have been reported missing. Though authorities had broadcast repeated storm warnings, many of the missing boats might have been small vessels without radios.
Across the devastated region, trees and power poles were uprooted, disrupting communication and electricity supplies.
The Bangladeshi navy launched search and rescue operations, while four helicopters loaded with emergency relief supplies have been dispatched to some of the worst-hit areas.
Around 30,000 volunteers mobilised by Bangladesh Red Crescent used bullhorns, beat drums and used a special flag system to spread evacuation warnings, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said in Geneva.
The UN’s World Food Programme said it was sending 98 metric tonnes of high-energy biscuits, enough for 400,000 people for three days.
"The urgent needs are food, water purification tablets and medicines," WFP spokeswoman Christiane Berthiaume said. By early today the storm had weakened to a tropical storm and had moved inland.
The cyclone followed devastating floods in during the summer that killed more than 1,000.
Storms batter the poor, disaster-prone country every year. A severe cyclone killed half a million people in 1970, while another in 1991 killed 143,000. Many of the country’s 140 million people live around the low-lying river deltas that criss-cross the country and are especially vulnerable to tidal surges.