By LALIT K JHA and SAW YAN NAING
Cyclone Bijli, a tropical storm centered over the central western part of the Bay of Bengal, is forecast to make landfall near the Burma-Bangladesh border sometime this weekend, according to reports in Burma’s state-run media on Friday.
Burma’s Department of Meteorology and Hydrology forecast that the cyclone would hit the western coast of Burma late Saturday afternoon. As it approaches, it is expected to bring waves 5 to 7 feet (1.5 to 2 meters) high along the Arakan coast and 3 to 4 feet (0.9 to 1.2 meters) high along the coast of the Irrawaddy delta.
According to the department, the force of Cyclone Bijli is now at the orange level, with surface wind speeds expected to reach as high as 60 to 70 mph (96 to 112 km/h).
Trawlers, fishing boats and ferry boats in the Arakan coastal region were warned to seek shelter before the storm reaches the coast.
Residents of the Irrawaddy delta region are also worried about the likelihood of high waves and flooding hitting the coast, prompting some living in more vulnerable communities to move inland.
“Some people from the countryside have come into town to stay at monasteries or with relatives,” said a resident of Laputta, one of the main towns in the area.
In Bogalay, another large town in the delta region, residents reported that there was widespread concern about the coming storm, which local authorities have done nothing to prepare for, apart from issue a warning.
“Everyone here is afraid of the situation. They are phoning each other and trying to keep everyone informed about the cyclone,” said one Bogalay resident.
For many in the area, memories of the devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis, which struck just under a year ago, are still fresh. As many as 140,000 people were killed and around 2.4 million were left homeless after Cyclone Nargis slammed into the delta with 120 mph (190 km/h) winds on May 2-3, 2008.
John Feerick, a meteorologist working for the American weather forecasting agency, AccuWeather.com, told The Irrawaddy that although Cyclone Bijli was not likely to be as destructive as Nargis, it could still have a significant impact on the slowly recovering region.
“[Bijli] is not expected to be as severe as Nargis, but it could result in a lot of damage in Burma,” Feerick said, explaining that satellite images showed that the storm would bring in a lot of rain, with the potential to cause massive flooding.
“It does not look like it would be a major storm for wind. I think the bigger concern is heavy rainfall,” he said.
Meanwhile, in some areas of Arakan State, including Minbya Township, residents reported that they were being instructed by local authorities using loudspeakers not to go out during the storm.
However, many residents are ignoring the announcements, saying they have often experienced disasters in the past.
A housewife in Sittwe, the capital of Arakan State said, “We heard the news about the storm, but many people here don’t really care about it. They are still enjoying the water festival.”
In May 2004, the worst cyclone to hit Arakan State in over 40 years killed at least 240 people and left 14,000 homeless. The worst affected areas were Minbya, Sittwe, Pauktaw and Myebon.