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Deadly Cyclone Wreaks Havoc for Bangladesh

November 19, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT
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Aid agencies are rushing to assist Bangladesh in the aftermath of a cyclone that killed thousands and left millions homeless. Bangladesh's Ambassador to the United States and an international aid expert assess relief efforts.
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JIM LEHRER: Now the Bangladesh story. We start with a report narrated by Inigo Gilmore of Independent Television News.

INIGO GILMORE, ITV News Special Correspondent: They’re stunned, traumatized, and they’re hungry. This the scene across Bangladesh’s devastated cyclone zone today, as the military stepped in to try to help.

The queues for food are long. Aid agencies warn that the havoc wreaked by the cyclone has compounded the already bleak food situation. A lucky few are handed cash; if only there was something to spend it on.

The water has receded, but the grief shows no sign of subsiding. This man, like others in his village, has lost everything. And for Masuda Begum, the tragedy is particularly heart-breaking.

MASUDA BEGUM, Survivor (through translator): During the storm, my mother held on tightly to a wooden post of our home, but the water swept her away. We could not save her. For the last three days, we have been searching for her body, but have not found it. I saw her sinking in the water.

INIGO GILMORE: The flimsy structures that count for homes here were swept aside as the cyclone created a wave like a small tsunami that tore through hundreds of defenseless villages. Blighted Bangladesh has seen this sort of thing before, but it’s the worst natural disaster in over a decade.

AMENA BEGUM, Survivor (through translator): The storm has taken everything I had. My husband is dead. I’m very alone. How can I survive?

INIGO GILMORE: A major international aid effort is underway to boost those chances of survival. With roads and bridges washed away, it’s difficult to reach the devastated communities. Some outlying areas are still cut off, so the scale of the devastation remains unknown.

More than 3,000 killed

JIM LEHRER: Gwen Ifill has more.

GWEN IFILL: And for more on that disaster, we are joined by Bangladesh's ambassador to the United States, Humayun Kabir, and Rein Paulsen, senior director for humanitarian and emergency affairs for World Vision, an international relief organization.

Welcome to you both.

Mr. Ambassador, what can you tell us, the latest tonight, on what the death toll and the injury toll is from the cyclone?

HUMAYUN KABIR, Bangladesh's Ambassador to the United States: Thank you. So far, we have the information that more than 3,000 people have perished. And few more thousands have been injured. And the search is still on, and we anticipate that the death toll could rise farther, the government.

The efforts are on to find all the bodies, wherever possible. The government is fully engaged. The NGOs, civil society, international organizations, all are working together to find out the victims of this horrible cyclone.

GWEN IFILL: Is there any way to estimate how many people have been displaced?

HUMAYUN KABIR: Well, I would estimate that around -- let me give you background of what happened. The area that was hit had approximately 5 million people. We have evacuated 3.2 million, and now around a few thousand perished.

And it is our understanding that around, you can say, half-a-million people are affected by this devastation. And we have to arrange food for them, housing for them, and get them back to normal conditions of life.

GWEN IFILL: And have you been getting international offers of aid so far?

HUMAYUN KABIR: Well, we have been trying to take the initial effort, if you call it. The government has mobilized all its resources. The chief adviser himself is now leading the charge, in a way. The army deployed. Around 3,000 to 4,000 army personnel are now working.

The civil society organizations, NGOs, are also engaged to rescue or rehabilitation process. And we are also expecting, and we are welcoming the international support. Already, the U.N. agencies are working. International organizations, different international organizations are also working on the ground. And we would welcome support from the international organizations.

Loss of homes, crops

GWEN IFILL: Let's talk to Rein Paulsen, who, of course, represents one of those international organizations. You have about 800 workers on the ground from World Vision in the region. How can you quantify the human devastation here?

REIN PAULSEN, World Vision: Well, it really is a challenge. We have, as you said, 800 people in various locations in five of the worst affected districts. And their job, of course, is to provide that emergency assistance in these first few days and at the same time as trying to quantify what else has happened.

And at this stage, a few things are clear. There has been significant damage in terms of housing. Many tens of thousands of people have lost their homes. There's also been very significant damage to the crops. I would mention in particular the rice crop.

In World Vision's area of operation, our staff on the ground estimate that as much as 70 percent of the rice crop has been lost in advance of a December harvest, so this has been a real blow on a number of levels. And communities are going to need support for a long time coming ahead.

GWEN IFILL: How would you quantify this, compare this to other big disasters which we are familiar with? For many people, the last large Asian disaster involved the tsunami in 2005.

REIN PAULSEN: Comparisons are always a challenge. I would say the one thing we can see with Bangladesh is that, as bad as this tragedy is in terms of loss of life, there is no doubt the loss of life would have been a lot worse had there not been the significant investments in disaster preparedness and mitigation work that the government of Bangladesh has led, along with organizations like World Vision.

GWEN IFILL: Because in previous cyclones there have been many, many tens of thousands more people. In 1991, I believe, it was 143,000 people.

REIN PAULSEN: And, again, in this instance, we know just from World Vision's operating areas alone that more than 60,000 people were able to make it to these cyclone-proof shelters that World Vision has supported and built in the past, so certainly some positive lessons amidst this terrible devastation.

Assessing the need

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Ambassador, as you begin to figure out what to do next once the death toll and the injury toll and the homelessness toll is actually counted up, what do you need the most? Do you need help with access, access to these areas -- I hear there are a lot of trees down -- sanitation, loss of water supply, what?

HUMAYUN KABIR: Yes. Before I answer your question, let me...

GWEN IFILL: Yes, please.

HUMAYUN KABIR: ... support what my panelist has said, that the preparation was quite strong this time. And the natural disaster management council met before the disaster, ministry of disaster coming to work.

And you would be surprised to know that 42,000 volunteers worked, and they put up 3.2 million people to more than 2,000 cyclone shelters. So that was a massive effort that was being carried out by the government and other supporting organizations. So that actually reduced the numbers quite significantly, but having said that...

GWEN IFILL: So going forward, yes.

HUMAYUN KABIR: Yes, we need at this time food, for example. For immediate need is food. You can say tents, for example, for people, the need for clothing, for example, certain kinds of things of that type. They also need medicines, water-purifying tablets, for example. These are in short term what we need quite urgently.

GWEN IFILL: Is this something that the United States has been helpful on?

HUMAYUN KABIR: Well, many friendly countries are coming forward, including the United States. United Nations organizations, other countries are also helping us. And during the last two days, we have received assurances from countries like Saudi Arabia, China, Japan, India, and many other friendly countries.

GWEN IFILL: And, Rein Paulsen, how do you prioritize what needs to be done first and then after that in a situation like this?

REIN PAULSEN: Well, in this instance, World Vision was able to pre-position some goods and staff in some locations having warning of the cyclone coming in. And we've done significant work on this community-based preparedness work that I mentioned previously.

So as much as we've been able to pre-position those goods, we've been able to respond. Our first response started this weekend, with week-long family packs that we've given to individuals, containing staple foods and basic clothing items, drinking water, which, of course, is critical.

There will be significant needs moving ahead. And it's important that people are aware of both what's happening on the ground and how they can support the work effort.

How to help

GWEN IFILL: And what is it exactly how that can people -- let me rephrase that. Exactly how can people support the work effort?

REIN PAULSEN: I'd encourage people to go to WorldVision.org, and see the latest news from the ground, and see the relief efforts underway, and see how they can make a cash donation to support these relief efforts and the kits being deployed.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Ambassador, would you like to make a suggestion about how people can help?

HUMAYUN KABIR: Yes, we have -- the chief adviser's relief fund is there. And we have -- from our embassy, we have circulated theâ?¦number. And we are also urging our community, particularly, to donate financially to the chief adviser's fund. And if they have anything they want to donate to our embassy, we will arrange to send that to that relief fund.

GWEN IFILL: There is also another group called InterAction, which is a coalition of a lot of these non-governmental organizations. They can be reached at InterAction.org.

Rein Paulsen, Mr. Ambassador, thank you both very much.

REIN PAULSEN: Thank you.

HUMAYUN KABIR: Thank you very much.