CHITTAGONG, BANGLADESH — Blackouts and severed communications links hampered rescue and relief efforts Saturday as more than 1,700 bodies were recovered after a catastrophic cyclone.
Bangladesh mobilized its army, navy and air force to join thousands of government personnel and relief workers struggling to reach victims of the disaster in southern coastal districts.
Tropical Cyclone Sidr, the deadliest storm in more than a decade to hit this impoverished South Asian country, struck Thursday, wrecking villages and vital infrastructure and disrupting communications and power supplies.
The storm's 150-mph winds and thrashing rains triggered blackouts across most of the country, setting off a chain of crises including shortages of clean water, officials said.
Government officials warned that the death toll could rise as rescue teams reached the storm-ravaged areas.
The official death toll was 1,723. A private Bangladeshi TV channel reported that the number had surpassed 2,000.
"The death toll is continuously rising as reports of recovery of the bodies continue to pour in," Altaf Hossain, a regional administration chief in southern Bangladesh, said in a telephone interview. "Our rescue teams are on the hunt amid difficult struggles."
Roads blocked by uprooted trees as well as the collapse of ferry services and other infrastructure have hampered efforts to reach affected areas, Hossain said.
"But our teams are working to remove the hurdles, and some of the team members have already moved by the few speedboats available right now," he said. "So far we recovered 139 bodies, and 400 others remain missing in my coastal district alone."
The storm leveled 70% of houses in the district, Hossain said. Many were flimsy structures of bamboo and rough-hewn wood that snapped like matchsticks in the fierce winds. The cyclone caused widespread destruction of crops and other property, Hossain said, citing initial estimates of the damage.
"It may take a few more days to get the clear picture of loss of life and property," he said.
Evacuations of more than 3 million people saved lives, said Nasir Ullah, director of the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society.
"Many people from vulnerable coastal areas were forced to move to shelters one day ahead of the cyclone," Ullah said.
Also lowering the potential toll was timing: The storm hit land before high tide.
"Otherwise, this cyclone could have claimed huge casualties," Ullah said.
A severe cyclone that pummeled Bangladesh in 1970 left as many as 500,000 dead, and another in 1991 claimed 140,000 lives.
In low-lying areas, a 4-foot storm surge contributed to the destruction.
"It is not possible to save property from the wrath of a cyclone or other natural calamities with advance measures," Ullah said. "Enormous amounts of money and foreign help will be needed for rehabilitation in the affected areas."
A senior navy official said two ships with relief materials were joining the rescue operation.
One of the naval vessels was sent to St. Martin's Island to rescue stranded tourists.
Many survivors in low-lying districts were waiting for food and drinking water Saturday, witnesses said.
When a helicopter carrying relief goods landed Saturday afternoon at Matbaria, a village in the Pirojpur coastal district, thousands of survivors crowded around, witnesses said.
"Now we have no food, no water and no house to stay in," shouted resident Jafor Ahmed.