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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Cyclone Mocha reaches Myanmar and Bangladesh, killing at least 6

Cyclone Mocha made landfall near Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh, passing through the city that is home to the world’s largest refugee encampment and raising fears of a humanitarian catastrophe.

By John Yoon, Judson Jones, Jin Yu Young and Saif Hasnat

A storm forecast to be the strongest to hit Myanmar in more than a decade made landfall near the country’s border with Bangladesh on Sunday, but early reports suggested that it so far had not led to the humanitarian catastrophe authorities feared.

Cyclone Mocha moved ashore Sunday afternoon in the coastal area around Cox’s Bazar, according to Bangladesh’s meteorological department. The Bangladeshi city is home to the world’s largest refugee encampment.

By Sunday morning, maximum sustained winds had reached 160 mph, with gusts surpassing 180 mph, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center, making it a Category 5 storm. That is the highest rating on the Saffir-Simpson Scale and indicates potential for catastrophic damage.

Even before the cyclone moved ashore, U Hla Moe, a representative from a rescue team in Tachileik, a city in the country’s eastern region, said a landslide caused by heavy rain killed two people early Sunday, burying them in their house while they were sleeping. The local news media reported that at least four more people had died in the western and central regions of the country.

Officials said heavy rains in Bangladesh had caused damage in several areas. About 500 shanties were damaged in the Rohingya camps, while thousands of houses were destroyed or partially damaged in the broader Cox’s Bazar and St. Martin areas, officials said.

Officials and storm watchers expressed cautious hope that the region could be spared the worst as the storm weakened over land.

“Fortunately, the rainfall was not as persistent as we had feared, and no casualties have been reported so far,” said Mizanur Rahman, the refugee relief and repatriation commissioner in Cox’s Bazar. “Overall, it appears that the damage was not as extensive as we had initially anticipated.”

At least 20 villages in the Magway region, along the banks of the Irrawaddy River, were underwater because of a broken dam, affecting at least 100 people who needed help, according to local news reports.

The World Food Program was preparing for a large-scale emergency response and positioning food and relief supplies, cars and emergency equipment, the organization said in a statement.

The program has prepared enough food to help more than 400,000 people in Rakhine state, in Myanmar, and neighboring areas for one month. Food is also ready to be dispatched in and around the Rohingya refugee camps.

Mostofa Kamal, a weather and climate researcher at the University of Saskatchewan, wrote on social media that as the center of the storm began passing between Saint Martin Island and Maungdaw district in Myanmar, the tide was going out. This mitigated the effect of storm surge.

The Bangladesh Meteorological Center said Sunday that the center of the cyclone had crossed Cox’s Bazar at 3 p.m., and that it would finish crossing the coast by Sunday evening and gradually weaken.

Cyclone Mocha formed over the southern Bay of Bengal on Thursday and, as it churned northeast, drenched western Myanmar with heavy rain, strong winds and storm surges, according to the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System.

Days before the storm hit, Myanmar and Bangladesh began deploying thousands of volunteers and ordering evacuations from low-lying areas, in a region that is home to some of the world’s poorest people, who are especially vulnerable to increasingly severe weather events.

“Cyclone Mocha serves as a stark reminder to us of the devastating effects of climate change,” the U.N. Development Program in Bangladesh said on Twitter.

In Myanmar, the risk of devastation is compounded by a civil war that has displaced about 1.8 million people across the country, with the region south of the Bangladesh border being an active fighting zone and home to several large refugee camps.

In Cox’s Bazar, more than 200,000 people had been sent to 1,600 shelters. There is capacity to accommodate about 500,000 people, according to district officials. More than 1 million Rohingya people live in the sprawling camps.

With a storm of this intensity, storm surge — the bulge of water that is pushed with the winds as a storm nears the coast — has been a major concern near the cyclone’s landfall and to the south of it. Storm surge is often the greatest threat to life and property, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Mocha looks likely to be the strongest storm to make landfall in Myanmar since Cyclone Giri in 2010, which packed winds of 143 mph, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s historical cyclone tracks. That storm killed at least 45 people in Myanmar.

The term “cyclone” refers to a type of tropical cyclone — the umbrella term for all such storms, like hurricanes and typhoons — that forms in the Bay of Bengal or the Arabian Sea, both in the northern Indian Ocean. Scientists say that climate change has helped intensify storms, because the unusually warm ocean temperatures provide more energy to fuel them.

Cyclone Mocha comes as a deadly heat wave has been searing Southeast Asia for weeks. In April, Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, hit 105.1 degrees Fahrenheit, its highest temperature in six decades.

The Bay of Bengal, in the northeastern part of the Indian Ocean, has had a long history of major storms.

In 2008, Cyclone Nargis became the second-deadliest tropical cyclone on record and the deadliest in Myanmar, killing more than 135,000 people. In 2007, Cyclone Sidr struck Bangladesh, killing more than 3,000 people.

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