A storm expected to be the strongest to hit Myanmar in more than a decade made landfall near the border with Bangladesh on Sunday, raising fears of a humanitarian disaster.
The storm moved ashore on Sunday afternoon in the coastal area around Cox’s Bazar, according to the Bangladesh Meteorological Department. The Bangladeshi city is home to the world’s largest refugee camp.
By Sunday morning, maximum sustained winds reached 160 mph, with gusts above 180 mph, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center, making it a Category 5 storm. That’s the highest rating on the Saffir-Simpson scale and shows potential for catastrophic damage.
There were reports from Myanmar of damaged homes and boats, and one social media user posted a clip that appeared to show the moment a communications tower collapsed in strong winds. Video from a witness in Sittwe, on the coast of Myanmar, showed strong winds, flooded streets and buildings with roofs partially ripped off.
Even before the cyclone moved ashore, U Hla Moe, a representative of a rescue team in the eastern city of Tachileik, said a landslide triggered by heavy rain killed two people in the early hours of Sunday when he buried them in their house while they sleep. Local media reported that at least four more people were killed in the western and central parts of the country.
Koh Win Maung, a lifeguard in Sittwe, said the water level was now about 5 feet and that his team was going to rescue an elderly couple stuck on their roof.
“Their house is already under water,” he said.
Abdusator Esoev, Head of Mission in Bangladesh for the United Nations Migration Agency, wrote on Twitter that the cyclone is damaging the facilities in the Rohingya refugee camp.
Officials and storm watchers expressed cautious hope that the region could be spared the worst possible damage from the storm as it weakened over land.
The program has prepared enough food to help more than 400,000 people in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and neighboring areas for one month. Food is also ready to be sent to and around the Rohingya refugee camps.
Mostofa Kamal, a weather and climate researcher at the University of Saskatchewan, wrote on social media that when the center of the storm began to pass between Saint Martin Island and Maungdo District in Myanmar, the tide disappeared. This mitigates the effect of the storm.
“For now, the cyclone is passing through the northern coastal area of Cox’s Bazar and no reports of damage have been received yet,” said Mohammad Shaheen Imran, district administrator.
The Bangladesh Meteorological Center said on Sunday that the center of the cyclone crossed Cox’s Bazar at 3 pm and that it would finish crossing the coast by Sunday evening and weaken gradually.
The storm, Cyclone Mocha, formed over the southern Bay of Bengal on Thursday and drenched western Myanmar as it moved northeast, bringing heavy rain, strong winds and storm surges, according to the Global Disaster Warning and Coordination System.
Days before the storm hit, Myanmar and Bangladesh began deploying thousands of volunteers and ordering evacuations from low-lying areas, in a region home to some of the world’s poorest people who are particularly vulnerable to increasingly severe weather events .
“Cyclone Moka reminds us of the devastating effects of climate change,” The United Nations Development Program in Bangladesh announced on Twitter.
In Myanmar, the risk of devastation is compounded by a civil war that has displaced some 1.8 million people across the country, with the region south of the border with Bangladesh a zone of active fighting and home to several large refugee camps.
In Cox’s Bazar, more than 200,000 people were sent to 1,600 shelters. It has the capacity to house about 500,000 people, according to district officials. More than one million Rohingya live in the scattered camps.
In a storm of this intensity, the storm surge — the bulge of water pushed up by the winds as the storm approaches the coast — has been a major concern near the cyclone’s landfall and south of it. A storm is often the biggest threat to life and property, according to the Hurricane Center.
Mocha is likely to be the strongest storm to make landfall in Myanmar since Cyclone Giri, which in 2010 produced winds of 143 miles per hour, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s historical cyclone tracks. This storm killed at least 45 people in Myanmar.
The term “cyclone” refers to a type of tropical cyclone—the general term for all such storms, such as hurricanes and typhoons—that forms in the Bay of Bengal or the Arabian Sea, both in the northern Indian Ocean. Scientists say climate change has helped fuel the storms, as unusually warm ocean temperatures provide more energy to fuel them.
Cyclone Mocha comes as a deadly heatwave has gripped Southeast Asia for weeks. In April, Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, reached 105.1 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest temperature in six decades.
The Bay of Bengal, in the northeastern Indian Ocean, has a long history of large storms. In 2008, Cyclone Nargis became the second deadliest tropical cyclone on record and the deadliest in Myanmar, killing more than 135,000 people. In 2007, Cyclone Sidr hit Bangladesh, killing more than 3,000 people.
Emma Bubola and April Rubin contributed reporting.