Thousands flee as Cyclone Mocha approaches Myanmar and Bangladesh

SITTWEMyanmar: Thousands fled Myanmar’s west coast and authorities in neighboring Bangladesh rushed to evacuate Rohingya refugees on Saturday as the region’s strongest cyclone in more than a decade slammed into the Bay of Bengal.
Cyclone Mocha was blowing winds of up to 220 kilometers per hour (136 miles per hour), according to the Indian Meteorological Office, which is equivalent to a category four hurricane.
It is expected to weaken before making landfall on Sunday morning between Cox’s Bazar, where nearly a million Rohingya refugees live in camps made up largely of flimsy shelters, and Sittwe on Myanmar’s west Rakhine coast.
On Saturday, residents of Sittwe piled their belongings and pets into cars, trucks and tuk-tuks and headed for higher ground, according to AFP reporters.
“We have our grandmother in our family and we have to take care of her,” Khine Min told AFP from a truck full of her relatives on a road out of the state capital.
“There is only one man left in Sittwe to take care of our houses.”
Shops and markets in the city of around 150,000 people have been closed, with many residents sheltering in monasteries.
Kyaw Tin, 40, said he could not leave the area as his son was in a local hospital.
“I hope this cyclone does not come to our state. But if this fate occurs, we cannot ignore it,” he said.
“I fear this cyclone will affect our state just like Nargis,” he added, referring to a 2008 storm that killed more than 130,000 people in southern Myanmar.
Myanmar junta authorities were overseeing evacuations from villages along the Rakhine coast, state media reported on Friday.
Myanmar Airways International said all its flights to Rakhine State had been suspended until Monday.
In neighboring Bangladesh, officials moved to evacuate Rohingya refugees from “at-risk areas” to community centers, while hundreds fled an island resort.
“Cyclone Mocha is the strongest storm since Cyclone Sidr,” Azizur Rahman, head of Bangladesh’s meteorological department, told AFP.
This cyclone hit the southern coast of Bangladesh in November 2007, killing more than 3,000 people and causing billions of dollars in damage.
Bangladeshi authorities have banned the Rohingya from building permanent concrete houses, fearing this could encourage them to settle permanently rather than return to Myanmar, which they fled five years ago.
“We live in houses made of tarpaulin and bamboo,” said refugee Enam Ahmed, who resides at Nayapara camp near the border town of Teknaf.
“We are scared. We don’t know where we will be accommodated. We are in panic.”
Forecasters expect the cyclone to bring a deluge of rain, which can trigger landslides. Most camps are built on hillsides and landslides are a regular occurrence in the area.
Moka is also expected to trigger a storm surge up to four meters (13 feet) high, which could inundate low-lying coastal and river villages.
Officials said thousands of volunteers were evacuating Rohingya from “risk areas” to more solid structures such as schools.
But Bangladesh’s deputy refugee commissioner, Shamsud Douza, told AFP: “All the Rohingya in the camps are at risk.”
Panic also gripped around 8,000 people on Bangladesh’s southernmost island, Saint-Martin‘s, with the tiny coral outcrop – one of the best resort areas in the country – right in the storm’s path.
Resident Dilara Begum traveled to Teknaf to wait out the storm.
“Many also left,” she said. “It’s an island in the middle of the sea. We’ve been living in fear for a few days.”
Officials said about 1,000 St. Maarten islanders did the same.
Operations have been suspended at Bangladesh’s largest seaport, Chittagong, with shipping and fishing also halted.


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