Dacca, Bangladesh — Cradling her year-old son, Selina surveyed the five-foot deep lake of murky water around the school. Nine days earlier, the 25-year-old woman and her husband, a rickshaw puller, fled to Notre Dame College from their tiny hut that had been swamped by surging flood waters. ``We escaped with our clothes, our child, and our lives.'' Selina said. ``We don't know when we can go home and what will be left.''
In like manner, millions of Bangladeshis are enduring the country's worst flood, that began almost two weeks ago. Downpours and the overflow from Bangladesh's three great rivers submerged more than three-quarters of the country. Almost one-third of Bangladesh's 110 million people were driven from their homes and farmlands and roads have been devastated. About 1,000 people have died, officials say, and the toll is expected to rise.
``For centuries, our people have lived ith floods; never before has the fury ... been so ruthless,'' President Hussain Muhammad Ershad said Monday.
As the waters recede, the scale of the disaster is beginning to emerge. With an estimated 3 million tons of grain swept away, some officials say they will have to feed at least 5 million people for four months before new crops can be planted and harvested. The President said food stocks are enough to sustain millions of flood victims for about three months.
Aid officals say they are working to combat sickness from contaminated food and water. Many Bangladeshis are malnourished and, even in the best of times, struggle with illness.
An estimated 900,000 of Dacca's 5 million people are huddled in dank refugees camps. At Notre Dame, the 700 people occupy eight classrooms have received food and medicine from the American priests who run the school and, in recent days, from the government.
``These people are getting care, and they are still suffering,'' said Agnes Gomez, a nurse. ``Just think of those who are still outside on the streets.''
The United States and other nations have pledged tens of millions of dollars in aid and are airlifting food and medicine to Dacca. But officials say only a trickle is reaching those marooned in rural areas.
Twenty-six miles and six hours by boat from Dacca, the hamlet of Tuital still lays under several feet of water. ``There's not a blade of rice left in the fields,'' said Sr. Shirley Morid, an Australian nurse. ``We have seen severely dehydrated children coming in and expect to see a lot more.''
The international aid agency Oxfam says it has only been able to reach 50,000 people since the floods began, and expects to reach 350,000 this week. One agency said checks of many refugee camps here showed the government delivered food on only three of the last 10 days.
``[We continue] to discover people who have not eaten for three to five days,'' says Fazle Hasan Abed of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee.
Still, Western officials and aid workers say the crisis has not destroyed the country's ability to outlast adversity. ``Bangladesh is a country that can't really live,'' says Australian Ambassador Susan Boyd. ``But it's also a country that won't die.''