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1988: Bangladesh cyclone 'worst for 20 years'

Thousands of people may have died from the most devastating cyclone to strike Bangladesh in almost 20 years, the UN reports.

The United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs has confirmed 700 people are known to have died.

The cyclone struck two days ago with winds reaching more than 150 kms per hour, and the death toll is expected to rise to thousands.

The UNOCHA said the fate of several thousand fishermen in canals and inlets of small islands south of Bangladesh are not known.

International response

One hundred bodies have been found near Dublarchar Island, 90 km off the coast.

Relief workers have described scenes of "complete devastation".

An estimated 85% of village houses, usually made from bush materials, have been flattened.

Thousands of people have been displaced and many are taking refuge in stone buildings such as schools and mosques.

Many have been injured from falling walls or live electric wires.

Relief workers now fear disease could ravage the country as running water has become polluted and many are suffering with gastric illnesses.

The tidal waves have swamped most of the tube wells.

John Key, field director of World Vision, told the BBC the rice fields, which are a lifeline to people in the area and were due to be harvested, have been completely wiped out.

He said people are distressed because they do not know the fate of loved ones.

But he also said hunger is now a growing problem.

"My top priority is to get my World Vision relief teams on the spot with supplies of food for the families concerned. That is going on right now - at least we can sustain life," he said.

In Context
Bangladesh has suffered a long history of extreme weather conditions.

In 1970, 300,000 people died in a cyclone and just three years after the 1988 cyclone - another struck, killing an estimated 140,000 people.

Floods and cyclones continue to plague the country.

But a new initiative - launched by the government with help from western aid agencies - underway into the early 1990s led to extensive cyclone shelter construction.

Even the most remote villages in Bangladesh now have access to these shelters, and authorities are confident the death tolls of 1970 and 1991 will not be repeated.

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