COX'S BAZAR, Bangladesh (AP) — Cyclone Mahasen struck the southern coast of Bangladesh on Thursday, lashing remote fishing villages with heavy rain and fierce winds that flattened mud and straw huts and forced the evacuation of more than 1 million people.
The main section of the storm reached land Thursday and immediately began weakening, according to Mohammad Shah Alam, director of the Bangladesh Meteorological Department. However, its forward movement was also slowing, meaning that towns in its path would have to weather the storm for longer, he said.
Even before the brunt of the storm hit, at least 18 deaths related to Mahasen were reported in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
The U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs had said Wednesday that depending on its trajectory, the storm could bring life-threatening conditions to about 8.2 million people in Bangladesh, Myanmar and northeast India. But the storm appeared to spare at least some areas once thought to be at risk.
In the seafront resort town of Cox's Bazar, tens of thousands of people had fled shanty homes along the coast and packed into cyclone shelters, hotels, schools and government office buildings. But by Thursday afternoon, the sun was shining and local government administrator Ruhul Amin said he planned to close the shelters by that evening.
"Thank God we have been spared this time," Amin said.
Mahasen hit land with maximum wind speeds of about 100 kph (62 mph) and quickly weakened to 90 kph (56 mph), said Alam, the meteorological official.
Along Myanmar's western coast, danger was particularly high for tens of thousands of displaced Rohingya people living in plastic-roofed tents and huts made of reeds in dozens of refugee camps.
Driven from their homes by violence, some members of the Muslim minority group refused to follow evacuation orders. Many distrust officials in the majority-Buddhist country, where Rohingya have faced decades of discrimination.
U.N. officials, hoping they would inspire greater trust, fanned out across the area to encourage people to leave. They said Thursday that more than 35,000 people had been relocated.
In Bangladesh, river ferries and boat service were suspended, and scores of factories near the choppy Bay of Bengal were closed. The military said it was keeping 22 navy ships and 19 Air Force helicopters at the ready.
"We have seen such a disaster before," said Mohammad Abu Taleb, who shut down his convenience shop in Cox's Bazar, a city of 200,000. "It's better to stay home. I'm not taking any chance."
A 1991 cyclone that slammed into Bangladesh from the Bay of Bengal killed an estimated 139,000 people and left millions homeless. In 2008, Myanmar's southern delta was devastated Cyclone Nargis, which swept away entire farming villages and killed more than 130,000 people. Both those cyclones were much more powerful than Cyclone Mahasen, which is rated Category 1 — the weakest level.
Heavy rain and storm surge could prove deadlier than the wind. Bangladesh's meteorological office said the cyclone was moving so slowly it may take a whole day for it to pass the Bangladesh coast.
The Bangladesh Ministry of Disaster Management said more than 1 million people had been evacuated from coastal areas. Television stations reported the deaths of two men, one of whom was crushed by a tree uprooted by the wind.
Related heavy rains and flooding in Sri Lanka were blamed for eight deaths earlier this week. At least eight people — and possibly many more — were killed in Myanmar as they fled the cyclone Monday night, when overcrowded boats carrying more than 100 Rohingya capsized. Only 43 people had been rescued by Thursday, and more than 50 Rohingya were still missing.
India's Meteorological Department forecast damage to the northeastern states of Assam, Mizoram, Manipur, Tripura and Nagaland, and advised fishermen off the west coast of the country to be cautious for the next 36 hours.
Much attention was focused on western Myanmar because of the crowded, low-lying camps where many Rohingya remain.
In Rakhine state, around 140,000 people — mostly Rohingya — have been living in the camps since last year, when two outbreaks of sectarian violence between the Muslim minority and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists forced many Rohingya from their homes.
Nearly half the displaced live in coastal areas considered highly vulnerable to storm surges and flooding from Cyclone Mahasen.
"Pack and leave," a Rakhine state official, U Hla Maung, warned as he walked through a camp near Sittwe, the state capital. Accompanied by more than a dozen soldiers and riot police, he suggested that people living there move to a nearby railroad embankment, then left without offering help.
U.N. workers spread across the area to help persuade Rohingya to evacuate. More than 10,000 families had been moved in recent days, the U.N. said.
"It is unclear at this stage if all those that needed to be evacuated have moved given the challenges," said Ashok Nigam, the head of the United Nations Development Program in the country.
Some Rohingya took down their tents and hauled their belongings away in cycle-rickshaws, or carried them in bags balanced on their heads.
"Now we're afraid. ... We decided to move early this morning," said U Kwaw Swe, a 62-year-old father of seven who was hoping the government would transport his family. Otherwise they intended to walk to safety.
Ko Hla Maung, an unemployed fisherman, was among those who had not left as of Thursday morning.
"We have no safe place to move, so we're staying here, whether the storm comes or not," he said. "... The soldiers want to take us to a village closer to the sea, and we're not going to do that. ... If the storm is coming, then that village will be destroyed."
Later Thursday, government officials said they would forcibly evacuate those who remain in the most exposed camps.
"This area will be totally empty tonight," army Lt. Lin Lin at a half-empty camp near Sittwe where dozens of people still refused to move. Without elaborating, he said the military would "take action" to force people to leave.
Myanmar's President's Office Minister Aung Min told reporters Wednesday that the government guarantees the safety of the Rohingyas during relocation and promises to return them to their current settlement when the storm has passed.
The Rohingya trace their ancestry to what is now Bangladesh. Though many have lived in Myanmar for generations, the government officially dismisses them as illegal immigrants. They face widespread discrimination in largely Buddhist Myanmar, and particularly in Rakhine, where many of the Rohingya live.
Tensions remain high in Rakhine nearly a year after sectarian unrest tore through the region and left parts of Sittwe, the state capital, burned to the ground. At least 192 people were killed.
Associated Press writers Tim Sullivan in Sittwe, Myanmar, Yadana Htun in Yangon, Myanmar, Jocelyn Gecker in Bangkok and Julhas Alam in Dhaka, Bangladesh contributed to this report.