DHAKA, Nov 18 (Reuters) Grieving survivors and rescuers picked through the rubble left in the wake of a super cyclone that battered Bangladesh as the death toll today neared 1,900 and a government official declared the disaster ''a national calamity''.
Military ships and helicopters were trying to reach thousands of people believed stranded on islands in the Bay of Bengal and in coastal areas still cut off by the devastating storm.
Officials expected the death toll to rise further as the search for hundreds of people missing after Thursday night's storm intensified.
The disaster ministry in Dhaka had recorded 1,861 deaths today, noon, but local media put the figure at more than 3,000. A much improved disaster preparedness plan has been credited with saving scores of lives.
''It will take several days to complete the search and know the actual casualty figure and extent of damage to property,'' said food and disaster ministry official Ayub Miah.
A huge effort was underway to get food, drinking water and shelter to tens of thousands affected by the storm, the worst to hit disaster-prone Bangladesh since 1991 when nearly 143,000 people died.
Cyclone Sidr smashed into the country's southern coastline late on Thursday night with 250 kph winds that whipped up a five metre tidal surge.
Most of the deaths came from the surge washing away homes and strong winds blowing down dwellings. Many others drowned or were lost at sea.
ELEPHANTS CLEAR FALLEN TREES In Barisal, one of the worst hit districts, authorities used elephants to clear uprooted trees blocking highways.
Helicopters flew sorties to devastated areas, dropping food, drinking water and medicine for the survivors.
''There are not many places where we can land,'' said one pilot, as large areas were still under water.
Several fishermen picked by a trawler from sea said they saw dozens of bodies floating in the waters near the Sundarban mangrove forest, a world heritage site and home to the endangered Royal Bengal tiger.
They also saw scores of dead deer and other wildlife floating in the Pashur river, near the forest.
Navy ships scoured coastal areas and sought to clear river channels clogged with sunken vessels. Red Crescent officials said some 1,000 fishermen and about 150 boats were still unaccounted for in the Bay of Bengal.
Tapan Chowdhury, a government adviser for food and disaster management, described the cyclone as a ''national calamity'' and urged all to come forward to help the victims.
''Everybody, including all political parties, should join the relief efforts,'' he said, adding that ''aid pledges from the international community have so far been good'', Relief operators on the ground said supplies were still inadequate and that the government should make an immediate plea for more international aid to avert a ''human disaster.'' In many areas there is still no electricity, and officials have warned it could take weeks to restore.
Aid officials said damage from the storm was very severe.
''Our relief teams have started emergency distribution, with an initial coverage of 100,000 people,'' Vince Edwards, national director of World Vision Bangladesh.
In many areas, 95 per cent of rice crops due to be harvested in a few weeks have been badly damaged, officials said. Hundreds of shrimp farms have also been washed away.
REUTERS SG ND1248