Four days after super cyclone Sidr killed more than 3,000 people in Bangladesh, rescuers struggled on Monday to reach isolated areas along the country's devastated coast to give aid to millions of survivors.
The tragedy unfolds as we walk through one after another devastated village, said relief worker Mohammad Selim in Bagerhat, one of the worst-hit areas. Often it looks like we are in a valley of death.
The confirmed death toll from the cyclone reached 3,113 by Monday, while 3,322 are injured and 1,063 missing, Lieutenant-Colonel Main Ullah Chowdhury told reporters in Dhaka.
He said two C-130 aircraft of the U.S. Marine Corp arrived in Dhaka on Sunday night with medical supplies.
Media reports said the death toll had already crossed 3,500, and was likely to rise sharply.
We are trying to reach all the affected areas on the vast coastline as soon as possible, then we will know how many people exactly have died, a government official said.
While it would take several days to determine the number of dead and missing, about 3 million survivors who were either evacuated from the low-lying coast or whose homes and villages were destroyed would need support, the government said.
Aid workers fear inadequate supplies of food, drinking water and medicine could lead to outbreaks of disease.
Food, shelter and medicine are badly needed for the survivors, Renata Lok Dessallien, United Nations Resident Representative in Bangladesh told Reuters after visiting cyclone-hit areas.
Grieving families begged for clothes to wrap around the bodies of dead relatives for burial. In some areas, they put corpses in mass graves.
Reuters reporters said bodies were being discovered by the hour in the rivers and paddy fields and under piles of debris.
The head of the army-backed interim government, Fakhruddin Ahmed, flew to devastated areas on Monday to reassure victims that his administration would provide enough aid.
Your courage in facing the disasters like cyclones and floods give us strength and reinforce confidence in our ability to do the best we can, he said in Patuakhali, one of the badly hit districts.
SEEKING REFUGE IN TREES
Cyclone Sidr smashed into the coast of southern Bangladesh late on Thursday with 250 kph (155 mph) winds that whipped up a five-meter (16-foot) tidal surge.
In its wake, bodies of people and animals floated down rivers and the stench of death filled the air. Relatives tried to identify and bring them ashore, before burying them hurriedly without proper ceremonies.
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 after the storm.
The U.N.'s World Food Program and Bangladesh Air Force helicopters have begun dropping high-energy biscuits to people stranded in inaccessible areas.
World Vision, one of many non-governmental groups working to help survivors, said on Monday about 1,000 fishermen were still unaccounted for.
Many of us climbed up in trees in the Sundarban forest, but I fell down in panic when I saw a tiger below, said a fisherman on Dublarchar island. The waves then swept me further into the mangrove and I found myself alive when the cyclone was over.
The Sundarban forest, home to the endangered Royal Bengal Tiger and a World Heritage site, was badly hit. A forest official said Sidr had damaged trees over about 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres), but could not say how many animals had been killed.
S.M. Nurul Alam, coordinator of Coast Trust, a non-government organization in Cox's Bazar, said about 5,000 fishermen from Cox's Bazar and nearby islands had gone to Dublarchar in recent weeks.
Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, foreign affairs adviser to the government, said on Monday the authorities had taken all measures to prepare for Cyclone Sidr.
Despite these steps, appalling damage has occurred, the assessment of which is still on-going, he said in a statement. We will welcome support from the international community.
The Dhaka Foreign Ministry said the King of Saudi Arabia has announced a $100 million grant for the victims. Riyadh would also airlift 300 tonnes of food and relief materials.
India said it would send a comprehensive relief package.
Officials in affected areas say the death toll given by the ministry is far below the real numbers. Aid agencies have said the toll could rise beyond 10,000.
The storm was the worst to hit disaster-prone Bangladesh since 1991 when nearly 143,000 people died in a cyclone and the tidal surge it triggered.
A much improved disaster preparedness plan, including storm shelters built all along the coastline, has been credited with saving hundreds of lives.
The extent of destruction is unimaginable, Reuters cameraman Rafiqur Rahman reported from a coastal village.
In the 7 km (4.5 miles) I trekked this morning, I saw not a single house standing, he said. Only a few leafless trees and a couple of dogs reminded me it was once a village.
(For more information on humanitarian crises and issues visit www.alertnet.org)
(Additional reporting by Ruma Paul, Serajul Islam Quadir, Nizam Ahmed, Masud Karim and Azad Majumder, editing by David Fogarty)