Bangladesh evacuates thousands as storm nears

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HAKA, Nov 15 (Reuters) Thousands of families have been evacuated from their homes over a dozen coastal districts of Bangladesh as a severe cyclone heads in from the Bay of Bengal, officials said today.

The storm, classified category 4 by the weather tracker Tropical Storm Risk, would likely make landfall in Bangladesh, any time from around 2 p.m. 1330 IST packing winds more than 210 km per hour.

It may also hit parts of eastern India and Myanmar, meteorology officials said.

In Chittagong, officials said they were ''panicked'' because of the unusual calm before the store.

''This suggests the core of the storm has been static, but may suddenly move with super speed before it finally slams the shores,'' one met official said today.

''People with past experience of major cyclones also feel the same way,'' said a journalist at Barisal coastal town.

The Bangladesh Meteorology Department raised danger signal number 10, the highest, at Mongla, Bangladesh's second main sea port, and number 9 at Chittagong and Cox's Bazar, the main port and prime tourist resort respectively.

It said the storm was centred nearly 500 km from the Bangladesh coast early today, and was likely to intensify further.

It may also trigger tidal surge up to 15 feet in some areas, the met officials said.

Officials at Cox's Bazar said they had evacuated nearly 200,000 people to about 600 government and private shelters and asked others to move on their own.

''The shifting process is continuing,'' said Sajjadul Hasan, chief of the Cox's Bazar district administration.

Another government official said nearly 70 tourists were stranded on Saint Martin's island in the Bay of Bengal.

Storms batter the poor south Asian country every year, killing hundreds of people. A severe storm killed more than half a million people in 1970, while a 1991 storm killed 143,000 people and destroyed thousands of properties.

Authorities have deployed more than 40,000 volunteers, police, troops, coastguards and health workers on the shoreline, where nearly 10 million people live in an area with storm shelters for around only half a million.

''We are taking people out of the high risk zones by using government transport and providing them food and shelter,'' said a government official in Chittagong.

Volunteers of the Cyclone Preparedness Centre were moving through villages, alerting people on loudspeakers about the impending danger.

Chittagong and Mongla ports have suspended operations since Wednesday and moved ships to safer areas, port officials said.

Chittagong airport has also suspended flights.

Fishing trawlers have been asked to return to harbours immediately, fishing community leaders in Cox's Bazar said.

Met officials said the storm was also expected to hit Vishakapatnam on the eastern Indian coast as well as Sittewe in Myanmar.

''This is a very serious cyclone,'' said B P Yadav, director of the India Meteorological Department, adding that he expected the storm to cross the coast of Bangladesh and the neighbouring Indian state of West Bengal by tomorrow morning, near Sagar Island.

REUTERS JT DS1130

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