Ten of thousands of coastal villagers took shelter yesterday as a cyclone approached Bangladesh's southwestern shores, spawning cold drizzles, strong winds and high waves, a weather official said.
Tropical Cyclone Sidr -- centered in the Bay of Bengal some 415km south of Mongla port -- was expected to make landfall late yesterday along the Khulna-Barisal coast, said Shahjahan Alam, an official at the Meteorological Department in Dhaka.
"It is likely to intensify and move in a northerly direction and may cross the Khulna-Barisal coast by Thursday evening," the Meteorological Department said in a special bulletin.
The cyclone, which began brewing on Tuesday in the Bay of Bengal, was producing winds of up to 220kph and could trigger tidal surges as high as 6m, Alam said in Dhaka, 175km north of Barisal town.
The Bangladesh Meteorological Department issued a bulletin on Wednesday putting the low-lying country's three major maritime ports -- Chittagong, Mongla and Cox's Bazar -- on the highest level of alert.
Volunteers helped evacuate thousands from coastal areas on Wednesday and the Meteorological Department warned ships to return to shore as the cyclone roared offshore.
Thousands of villagers moved to cyclone shelters -- concrete buildings on raised pilings, or sought refuge inside "mud forts" -- mud walls built along the coast to resist tidal surges.
Many fishing boats also put down anchor at nearby shoals and islets that dot the country's shoreline, witnesses said.
The cyclone also triggered rains and winds across the country, the weather office said.
The outer reaches of the cyclone were buffeting Saint Martin's island off Bangladesh's coast yesterday.
"Strong winds with a speed of about 80kph started slamming the island at about noon," said Moulvi Feroze Ahmed, a local government official on the island, 35km from the mainland.
"Some 6,000 residents and nearly 70 tourists have been evacuated to safety," he said by telephone. "The sea has started getting rough and the storm has already set off a 3 feet [1m] high water surge."
Officials at Cox's Bazar said that they had already evacuated nearly 200,000 people to about 600 government and private shelters and asked others to move on their own.
"The shifting process is continuing," said Sajjadul Hasan, chief of the Cox's Bazar district administration.
Authorities have deployed more than 40,000 volunteers, police, troops, coastguards and health workers on the shoreline, where nearly 10 million people live in an area with storm shelters for around only half a million.
"We are taking people out of the high risk zones by using government transport and providing them food and shelter," a government official in Chittagong said.
Volunteers of the Cyclone Preparedness Centre were moving through villages, alerting people on loudspeakers about the impending danger.
The storm may also hit parts of eastern India and Myanmar, meteorological officials said.