Bangladesh has been preparing for the worst as Cyclone Mahasen has been gradually approaching for days. One person was killed Thursday, as the cyclone, reduced to a status of Category 1, finally made landfall at Bangladesh’s southern Patuakhali coast. Winds reached 55 miles per hour, but the combination of Bangladesh’s preparedness and the lower-than-expected intensity of the cyclone has so far resulted in little property damage.
The man who died drowned in a lake in a coastal district as heavy rains fell. Low-lying areas were submerged by a three-foot storm surge.
The center of Cyclone Mahasen is still in the Bay of Bengal and is not expected to hit the coast of Chittagong until the afternoon. The Chittagong province evacuated 600,000 people, as it was feared would bear the biggest impact from the arrival of the storm.
Approximately 800,000 people spent Wednesday night in cyclone shelters, schools, and colleges. That is another reason for the low death toll, though when the center of the cyclone arrives later Thursday, the toll could rise.
Thousands of people were ordered to evacuate low-lying areas, but the Myanmar minority stayed behind. Some villagers worried that if they left their farms for the cyclone shelters, thieves might take advantage of their absence to steal their cattle.
The order to evacuate flood-prone areas has also meet resistance with the close to 140,000 displaced Rohingya people located in dozens of refugee camps. They have become skeptical of the government’s words and promises. Tens of thousands of them live there in tents made of only plastic-roofed tents and huts made of reeds.
The government barely recognizes even the existence of the Rohingya people. Two outbreaks of sectarian violence between the Muslim Rohingya minority and the ethnic Rakhine Buddhists resulted in the Rohingya people being forced to flee to the refugee camps.
The safety of the Rohingya minority, according to Minister Aung Min of the President’s office, is guaranteed. For people who have little reason to trust the government, his promise means little. Many of the Rohingya are concerned that if they leave, as the government officials demand, they will end up living in even worse conditions and refugee camps than they are now.
The refugee camps where nearly half of the displaced Rohingya live are in coastal areas. This fact, along with strong storm surges and heavy flooding, could see a marked increase in the eventual number of casualties from Cyclone Mahasen.
The government of Myanmar has been criticized in the past by human rights groups for violating the rights of its citizens and for failing to provide permanent housing in a timely manner for the displaced Rohingya. They have had months of warnings about the dangers posed to the camps by this year’s monsoons and cyclones, but they have dragged their feet in securing permanent housing for the Rohingya.
Cyclones have often struck both Bangladesh and Myanmar in recent decades, leaving hundreds of thousands of people dead. For instance, in May 2008, Cyclone Nargis killed approximately 140,000 people in Myanmar’s Irrwaddy Delta region, and in November 2007 Cyclone Sidr, which hit southern Bangladesh, killed upwards of 4,000.
Cyclone Mahasen may not be as powerful and fierce as previous ones, but the danger is still very real for the hundreds of thousands who live in low-lying areas threatened by storm surges and flooding.