Bangladesh mounts relief effort after cyclone. But efforts are hampered by continued flooding

In Bangladesh, national flags were lowered to half-mast and memorial services were offered Tuesday in a national day of mourning for victims of the cyclone which hit the country's coastal regions over the weekend. The goverment is slowly mounting a large relief operation. President Hussain Muhammad Ershad, the country's military leader, has postponed a visit to China. He has set up a committee to supervise relief operations and to draw up plans for rehabilitation of the affected people, many of whom are not only homeless but penniless too.

The Navy chief, Rear Adm. Sultan Ahmed, was put in charge of the massive relief operations involving all available armed forces mobilized on a war footing.

The first priority is to provide drinking water for survivors stranded for the past four days on the islands hit by the tidal wave. Pumps have been sent to the affected areas to remove saline water which was swept into fresh-water tanks and streams by the high seas.

Authorities estimate 5.5 million people in the coastal area were affected by the hurricane, which washed away entire communities with huge waves and flooded large areas of cropland.

President Ershad told reporters that between 5,000 to 10,000 people were killed in the storm and floods which have followed, Reuters reports.

However, the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said the number was as high as 40,000.

Air Force helicopters -- their number is small -- are carrying water and food to survivors. Rice, wheat, milk powder, some clothing, and construction materials are also being sent to the devastated areas by ship, boat, and truck.

The United States has announced an immediate donation of $25,000 for relief and Britain has offered $62,500 as aid. The West German Red Cross is also giving $100,000.

However, it appears that the relief operation lags far behind the need. Ershad reportedly told reporters, ``We will need nearly $50 million to get all the people back on their feet again.''

Many of those killed or affected by the cyclone had been settling and cultivating fresh land which formed at the estuaries of the Ganges and other Bangladesh rivers or emerged along the coast from the sea. This is why most of them had built homes outside protective embankments which were set up after the cyclones of 1963. But many died within the embankments, because the surge of sea water broke them at many places.

At Urichar, settlers refused to move to safety despite hearing warnings of the approaching storm because they were unwilling to leave their homes unguarded. Others did not pay heed because earlier warnings had been false alarms.

Overflowing rivers and fresh floods Tuesday hampered rescue efforts, as much of the affected area continued to be swept by high winds and waves.

Thousands of distressed people will have to start life anew, if they get that chance. The waves from the sea have spoiled all fresh water sources causing a great scarcity of drinking water.

Fifteen-foot high waves from the Bay of Bengal swept over islands and coastal districts Friday night and Saturday morning along nearly 250 miles.

Food has been swept away, as if by a great broom. The thatched houses of these poor people have been washed to the sea.

The shelterless people at Urichar are now praying for rains so that they could get water to drink.

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