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Cyclone Mocha makes landfall in Myanmar; region braces for devastation

Strong winds and heavy rain produced by Cyclone Mocha hit Myanmar's Rakhine state on May 14. (Video: Reuters)
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A severe cyclonic storm in the Bay of Bengal made landfall in western Myanmar on Sunday, bringing a dangerous storm surge, thrashing winds and heavy rains to parts of that country and neighboring Bangladesh, where some of the world’s most vulnerable communities live.

For days, authorities and aid groups prepared for the arrival of Cyclone Mocha, one of the strongest storms to strike the region in years. It made landfall as a strong Category 4 storm after peaking early Sunday as a Category 5 — the highest on the scale — with sustained winds of 175 mph and gusts as high as 200 mph.

Videos posted on social media showed floodwaters gushing through Sittwe in northern Myanmar, as well as powerful gusts ripping foliage off trees and toppling a communication tower. The United Nations warned that 2 million people in Myanmar were at risk because of the wind, rain and potential flooding. And in Bangladesh, close to 1 million refugees living in the Cox’s Bazar district along the coast were particularly vulnerable, the U.N. migration agency said.

“These communities are likely to face the brunt of the cyclone,” Abdusattor Esoev, the International Organization for Migration’s mission chief in Bangladesh, said Sunday. The majority of the refugees living in the area are ethnic Rohingya who fled a violent campaign of ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar military in 2017.

Satellite imagery from May 14 showed Cyclone Mocha as it approached Myanmar's coast. (Video: CIRA/CSU/EUMETSAT via Storyful)

But even amid early reports of some damage and deaths because of the storm — Myanmar said Sunday that five people were killed — there were also signs that the region may have been spared some of the worst devastation predicted by aid agencies and meteorologists.

On Sunday, India’s Meteorological Department said the system was “weakening” and would transform from an “extremely severe cyclonic storm” to a “very severe cyclonic storm” in the afternoon. And AKM Nazmul Haque of the Bangladesh Meteorological Department said the cyclone had mostly crossed the Bangladesh coast by 6 p.m. local time.

“The level of risk has reduced to a great extent in our Bangladesh,” Azizur Rahman, director of the Bangladesh Meteorological Department in Dhaka, told reporters, according to the Associated Press.

Mozibur Rahman, a local official from St. Martin’s Island in Bangladesh, said the storm caused damage to some houses.

“Between 1,000 and 1,200 houses have been damaged here. The roof of many eco-cottages had their roofs blown off and most trees had fallen,” he said.

Still, with peak winds of 175 mph, or 150 knots, Mocha ranks as one of the strongest cyclones in the Bay of Bengal during the satellite era (since 1982), and probably one of the strongest on record in the region. Experts say climate change is probably making tropical cyclones more intense globally.

Historically, storms like this have ended up killing hundreds to thousands or more people. Cyclone Nargis, which struck Myanmar in 2008, killed nearly 85,000 people and displaced many more.

As part of the preparations, Bangladesh and Myanmar evacuated hundreds of thousands of people, officials said. Some 6 million people were already in need of humanitarian assistance in the four areas of Myanmar expected to be most affected by the storm.

The World Food Program said in a statement that it has prepared food supplies to cover the needs of more than 400,000 people in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and neighboring areas for a month.

The affected areas are “burdened by conflict, poverty, and weak community resilience,” said Sheela Matthew, WFP’s deputy director for Myanmar.

“They simply cannot afford another disaster,” she said.

Rohingya refugees brave perilous seas to escape camp desperation

Azad Majumder in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Mohammad Faruque in Teknaf, Bangladesh, and Cape Diamond in Yangon, Myanmar, contributed to this report.