Fewer than a dozen helicopters fought wind and rain Saturday to carry food to millions of survivors of Tuesday's cyclone, as the Bangladesh government said the death toll had topped 125,000.
Marooned island dwellers who lived through the cyclone's 145-mph winds and 20-foot waves now are dying of snakebites, cholera and other water-borne diseases and have little food, shelter or drinking water, according to relief workers in the capital, Dhaka. Bad weather, persistent flooding, inadequate supplies and a minuscule transport fleet continue to hamper relief efforts, they said.An official news agency in Dhaka reported that 125,200 people have been reported dead so far in one of the worst catastrophes in the disaster-plagued history of Bangladesh, a densely populated country of 110 million people situated on a low river delta that for years has been disappearing gradually into the sea.
The rising body count and difficulty in reaching the worst-affectedareas have made it nearly impossible to come up with an accurate death toll. "Our men are finding new bodies all the time, but in a situation like this it is becoming very difficult to give an exact body count," Red Crescent official Emdad Hossain told reporters in Dhaka.
Prime Minister Khaleda Zia flew over her country's devastated eastern seaboard in a helicopter Saturday to inspect relief operations while other government officials appealed for money and supplies to aid the cyclone's victims.
Saudi Arabia pledged $100 million late Friday to the relief effort, far outstripping donations from other countries, some of whose officials have said they want to inspect the disaster area firsthand before deciding how to direct their aid.
As floodwaters began to recede in some areas, thousands of Red Crescent relief workers pressed their search for survivors and victims. Although foreign aid has begun to arrive in Dhaka, relief workers said it is woefully inadequate to deal with the scale of the disaster. Other relief officials feared disease would further raise the toll of the disaster, said John Mohrbacher of CARE's New York office.
"We don't see how they can avoid one of the biggest cholera epidemics in the century. With 12 million people out of their homes and carcasses fouling all the water, they're not only drinking sea water, they're drinking fouled sea water," Mohrbacher told the Associated Press.
The cyclone's devastation has provided a grim reminder of the chronic economic and social political problems of one of the world's poorest countries, which achieved independence in a bloody civil war two decades ago and has been struggling against famine, poverty, flooding, overpopulation and political instability ever since.
Government officials estimate that economic losses from the cyclone will total about $1.4 billion. They say floodwaters have wiped out a majority of the country's rice crop, threatened future harvests with salt water and destroyed whole industries along the eastern seaboard. Hundreds of thousands of people have been left homeless in the disaster.
Bangladesh already imports more than 1.1 million tons of food annually. Food Ministry officials predicted in Dhaka Saturday that the catastrophe would widen the country's food gap in the years ahead.
Nobel laureate Mother Teresa arrived in Dhaka Saturday with sacks of milk powder and biscuits for victims of the deadly storm.
"I have come here to give my love and care to the suffering people. It's good to share the suffering with them," said the 80-year-old Roman Catholic nun.
On Sunday, she is to visit areas damaged by the cyclone, possibly with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a Foreign Ministry official said.
Mother Teresa arrived from Calcutta, just across the border in India, where she runs a worldwide organization of more than 400 homes for the orphaned, poor, sick or dying. She set up a branch of her Missionaries of Charity in Bangladesh in 1972 and last visited in 1988 after a flood that killed 1,400 people.