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Storm brews over Bangladesh weather warnings

CHITTGONG, Bangladesh (Reuters) - A storm is brewing between Bangladesh meteorologists and the country’s sailors in the aftermath of super cyclone Sidr over whether earlier warnings could have prevented more deaths.

Nearly 2,000 people are known to have died when the cyclone struck on Thursday night, packing winds of up to 250 kmh (155 mph) and triggering a 5 metre (15 foot) storm surge.

Bangladesh adopts a 10 point storm severity signal system, with 1 being raised for even a small storm and 10 saved for all but the most severe. The international Tropical Storm Tracker uses a five point scale, with 5 being the most severe.

Alamgir Kabir, captain of St. Vincent-flagged Ashrar E Mostafa, told Reuters that they were caught off guard when Bangladesh officials raised the signal directly from 4 to 9 in a matter of hours.

“That initially confused men on merchant ships in the Bay of Bengal,” he said.

Had they raised the signal gradually, he said, it would have been easier for sailors to make preparations.

As the warning signal was raised, Chittagong Port ordered all vessels to leave their berths and move to outer anchorages.

“We were put in a mad race to get the ships out of the jetties,” said Mohammad Zulfiqar, captain of Bangladeshi merchant ship Banga Bijoy.

Bangladesh Meteorological Department officials defended their actions, saying the signal had been raised swiftly because the situation warranted it.


“Not all of the sea storms hit the shore,” said Shah Alam, a senior meteorologist at BMD. “So we (only) raise the alarm when we are certain that it is going to hit us.”

Kabir’s 126-m (390 foot) St. Vincent’s ship was discharging cement at Chittagong port after arriving from Colombo when authorities ordered it to an offshore anchorage.

“The ships are sent to the outer anchorage for safety when a storm comes dangerously near the coast to save ships from colliding and pounding each other or on the jetties,” a port official said.

“It is the usual system and perhaps the best way to save ships and crew.”

As the situation deteriorated, Kabir moved his ship, with 26 crew onboard, to even deeper waters to avoid colliding with other vessels. High waves and severe winds pounded the ship, often listing it dangerously, he said.

“We fought against the cyclone for more than eight hours, but thanks to Allah we are alive,” Kabir said.

Zulfiqar, captain of the Bijoy, said at one stage he lost control of the vessel and all communications.

“We were frightened. We recited from the holy Koran. Some were chanting Allahu Akbar (Allah is the greatest) to embolden themselves and their colleagues,” he said.

“As the sky was cloudy and there was no stars, we lost all directions and gave ourselves up to the whim of nature.

“Eight hours later, when the storm subsided, it was morning and we sailed back towards the port. We realised how pleasant it was to live.”

Writing by Nizam Ahmed, Editing by David Fox