Helicopters airlifted food to hungry survivors yesterday while rescuers struggled to reach remote areas devastated by Bangladesh's worst cyclone in a decade, amid fears the toll could be far higher than the official figure of 3,113.
The army helicopters carried mostly high-protein cookies supplied by the World Food Program (WFP), said Emamul Haque, a spokesman for the WFP office in Dhaka, which is coordinating international relief efforts.
International aid organizations promised initial packages of US$25 million during a meeting with Bangladesh agencies yesterday, Haque said.
The death toll hit 3,113 after reports finally reached Dhaka from storm-ravaged areas which had been largely cut off because of washed-out roads and downed telephone lines, said Lieutenant Colonel Main Ullah Chowdhury, a spokesman of the army coordinating the relief and rescue work.
The Bangladesh Red Crescent Society warned the toll could hit 10,000 once rescuers reach outlying islands, saying the estimate came from volunteers in rescue operations so far.
"The tragedy unfolds as we walk through one after another devastated village," said relief operator Mohammad Selim in Bagerhat, one of the worst-hit areas. "Often it looks like we are in a valley of death."
Grieving survivors had grim tales about losing loved ones.
In Galachipa, a fishing village along the coast in Patuakhali district, Dhalan Mridha and his family ignored the high cyclone alert issued by the authorities through radio and the Red Crescent volunteers.
When Mridha realized his mistake, it was too late.
"Just before midnight the winds came like hundreds of demons. Our small hut was swept away like a piece of paper and we all ran for shelter," said Mridha, a 45-year-old farm worker, weeping.
Mridha was separated from his wife, mother and two children while on his way to the shelter, a two-story building several blocks from his home. The next morning he found their bodies stuck up in a battered bush along the coast.
Mridha said he was too exhausted even to cry for their loved ones.
Local media described much of the coast as a vast valley of death and destruction, and said many grieving families buried their relatives in the same grave because they lacked any adult male survivors to dig graves.
While it will take several days to determine the number of dead and missing, some 3 million survivors who were either evacuated from the low-lying southern coast or whose homes and villages were destroyed will need support, the government said.
Relief items like tents, rice and water have been slow to reach many.
Government officials defended the relief efforts so far, and expressed confidence that authorities are up to the task.
"We have enough food and water," said Shahidul Islam, the top official in Bagerhat, a battered district near the town of Barguna. "We are going to overcome the problem."
Helicopters flew sorties to devastated areas, dropping food, drinking water and medicine for the survivors.
"But there are not many places where we can land," said one pilot, as large areas were still under water.
World Vision, one of many non-governmental groups working to help the cyclone survivors, said yesterday some 1,000 fishermen were still unaccounted for.
"Many of us climbed up on trees in the Sundarban forest, but I fell down in panic when I saw a tiger below," said a fisherman on Dublarchar island. "The waves then swept me further into the mangrove and I found myself alive when the cyclone was over."