B'desh makes strides in lowering storm death tolls

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DHAKA, Nov 17 (Reuters) Bangladesh has made huge strides in reducing death tolls from the cyclones that bash its coastline every year due to well-managed preparedness, aid agencies said today.

The death toll from the monster cyclone that struck Bangladesh late on Thursday, has reached nearly 1,000. But just 16 years ago, a similar cyclone killed more than 143,000 people. And another one in 1970 killed over 500,000.

Super cyclone Sidr smashed into Bangladesh's southern coastline with 250-kph winds that whipped up a 5-metre tidal surge.

The official death toll from the Thursday's cyclone was more than 900 but some newspapers today gave figures between 1,100 and 2,000, quoting their reporters in the devastated areas.

''The preparedness is better now because the people take warnings seriously in view of their past experience,'' Selvaratnam Sinnaduri, head of delegation of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRCRCS) told Reuters today.

Sinnaduri said early warnings by meteorologists and faster evacuation of people by skilled rescuers also contributed enormously for cyclone preparedness.

As Cyclone Sidr raged up the Bay of Bengal this week, 30,000 volunteers fanned out to tell villagers how to protect themselves and help evacuate those in danger's path.

''I can imagine that this cyclone would have killed over 100,000 in (the early 1990s),'' says Kamal Akbar, executive director of aid agency RDRS Bangladesh.

Cyclones are not getting any less powerful, so what has changed? ''In the 1970s, Bangladesh did not have the capacity to face such calamities,'' Akbar said. ''Now in every district there are disaster preparedness volunteers. They are out in the field talking to people, asking them to move to safer places.'' Announcements were broadcast over mosque loudspeakers to alert communities to the impending disaster, said Wahida Bashar Ahmed, Action Aid's emergencies coordinator in Bangladesh. Bangladesh has also set up several thousand cyclone shelters in recent years and all new schools are designed to function as flood shelters. They are built with reinforced concrete and elevated from the ground.

Aid agency CARE's spokesman in Bangladesh, Jamil Ahmed, points to another factor behind the falling death tolls -- the huge advances in meteorology.

''The damage could have been much more serious. This time the weather forecasting system and regional preparations worked very well. People have already been very active for the last two to three days. Ten years ago weather forecasting systems were not so good.'' REUTERS SYU SSC1213

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