The number of people left dead after the powerful cyclone that swept through Bangladesh on Thursday rose to more than 3,100 Monday, the government said. The United Nations estimated that a million people had been left homeless, many of them in remote areas without predictable food supplies.
The Bangladesh Red Crescent Society warned Sunday that the number of dead could conceivably be 5,000 to 10,000, and the U.N. World Food Program said Monday that it would not be surprised by such a tally. But on Monday, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said reports from its officials who had been to the hardest-hit areas led the organization to expect a final toll in line with the government's official assessment.
"What we are seeing on the ground is not as horrifying," said Devendra Tak, a senior regional spokesman for the federation, who spoke from Khulna, a town in southern Bangladesh, after visiting some of the districts that took the worst pounding from the cyclone, which had winds of more than 100 miles an hour. "We don't see the level of destruction that we had feared earlier."
Tak said thousands of fishermen who had been missing along the coastal areas and presumed dead had begun to turn up in their villages. "We are very optimistic that the overall disaster will not be on a very high level," Tak said by telephone.
The United Nations said it was waiting for a fuller picture to emerge and that the final death toll could still be significantly higher. Usha Mishra, a senior adviser at the U.N. World Food Program, said food supplies had been severely disrupted, creating risk of famine.
She said the program had begun to distribute some food, including high-energy biscuits. She also said more serious emergency operations were being considered, including broader food distribution and rebuilding of homes. "Shelter is the big need right now," she said. "One million people have been turned homeless."
She said the cyclone had devastated farmland that had already been severely damaged by flooding in August.
"We do face a prospect of some remote areas not getting some" supplies, she said. "We might see starvation in some areas." The government's officially confirmed death toll from the cyclone reached 3,113, said Lt. Col. Main Ullah Chowdhury, a spokesman for the army, according to The Associated Press.
He said reports were finally reaching the capital, Dhaka, from the areas that had been isolated when the storm washed out roads and knocked down telephone lines, the AP reported.
Even if the death toll rises, it will probably still be relatively low by the historical standards of Bangladesh, a poor country that has suffered from natural calamities in the past.
In 1991, a tropical storm led to roughly 140,000 deaths. Bangladeshi relief agencies have since built early-warning systems and thousands of storm shelters to help people evacuate before disasters strike.
Tak said much of the fury of the cyclone had been dissipated over the region's extensive forests before it struck more inhabited areas. He said the systematic distribution of aid began Sunday and continued Monday, and that many lives had been saved by the cyclone preparedness program and by efforts to urge people to leave their homes for the cyclone shelters.
"It could have been better, except some people are very hard to convince," he said.
He said that 200,000 people had been evacuated from their homes in the district around Khulna alone, and that many more had been moved from their homes in the broader region.
The government did a "good job" in providing first aid and counting the dead, Tak said. The relief and rehabilitation efforts are an important test for the country's army-backed caretaker government.
The leader of the interim government, Fakhruddin Ahmed, flew to the devastated region on Monday, Reuters reported.
"Your courage in facing the disasters like cyclones and floods give us strength and reinforce confidence in our ability to do the best we can," he said in Patuakhali, one of the badly hit districts, Reuters reported.