Thousands fled Myanmar’s west coast and officials in neighboring Bangladesh raced to evacuate Rohingya refugees on Saturday as the most powerful cyclone to hit the region in more than a decade moved into the Bay of Bengal.
According to the Indian Meteorological Department, Cyclone Mocha was packing winds of up to 220 kmph, equivalent to a category four storm.
It is expected to weaken before making landfall on Sunday morning between Cox’s Bazar, where about one million Rohingya live in refugee camps made up largely of makeshift shelters, and Sittwe on Myanmar’s western Rakhine coast.
On Saturday, residents of Sittwe piled possessions and pets into cars, trucks and tuk-tuks and headed for higher ground, according to AFP correspondents.
“We have our grandmother in our family and we have to take care of her,” Khin Min told AFP from a truck full of her relatives on a road outside the state capital.
“There is only one man left in Sittwe to take care of our homes.”
Shops and markets were closed in the city of about 150,000 people, with many locals taking refuge in monasteries.
Kyaw Tin, 40, said he could not leave the area because his son was in a local hospital.
“I hope this cyclone does not hit our state. But if it does, we cannot ignore it,” he said.
“I am worried that this will affect our state like Cyclone Nargis,” he said, referring to the 2008 storm that killed more than 130,000 people in southern Myanmar.
State media reported on Friday that Myanmar’s junta officials were monitoring evacuations from villages near the Rakhine coast.
Myanmar Airways International said all its flights to Rakhine state had been suspended until Monday.
Authorities in neighboring Bangladesh moved to move Rohingya refugees from “risky areas” to community centres, while hundreds fled a top resort island.
“Cyclone Mocha is the most powerful storm since Cyclone Sidr,” Azizur Rahman, head of Bangladesh’s meteorological department, told AFP.
That 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 Rohingya from building permanent concrete houses, fearing it 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 Inam Ahmed, a refugee living in the Nayapara camp near the border town of Teknaf.
“We are scared. We don’t know where to find shelter. We are in a panic.”
Forecasters expect the cyclone to bring a deluge of rain, which could trigger landslides. Most of the camps are built on hills, and landslides are a regular occurrence in the region.
Mocha is also predicted to have a storm surge of up to four meters (13 ft) high, which could inundate low-lying areas and villages along the river.
Officials said thousands of volunteers were moving Rohingyas from “risky areas” to more concrete structures such as schools.
But Shamsud Douza, Bangladesh’s deputy refugee commissioner, told AFP: “All Rohingya in the camps are at risk.”
Panic has also gripped some 8,000 people in Bangladesh’s southern island of St Martin, with small coral outcrops in the storm’s path – one of the country’s top resort districts.
Resident Dilara Begum traveled to Teknaf to wait out the storm.
“Many people are gone too,” she said. “It is an island in the middle of the ocean. We have been living in fear for the past few days.”
Officials said that about 1,000 St. Martin islanders had done the same.
Boat transport and fishing were suspended as well as operations in Bangladesh’s largest port, Chittagong.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)