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Hundreds of thousands evacuate as cyclone Bulbul approaches Bangladesh

Indians walk in the rain in Kolkata, India, Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019. Authorities in nearby Bangladesh put more than 50,000 volunteers on standby and readied about 5000 shelters as a strong cyclone in the Bay of Bengal is expected to hit the low-lying nation's vast southwestern and southern coast on Saturday evening. .
Indians walk in the rain in Kolkata, India, Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019. Authorities in nearby Bangladesh put more than 50,000 volunteers on standby and readied about 5000 shelters as a strong cyclone in the Bay of Bengal is expected to hit the low-lying nation's vast southwestern and southern coast on Saturday evening. . (AP Photo/Bikas Das)

With a strong cyclone approaching Bangladesh late Saturday night, authorities used more than 50,000 volunteers and officials to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people to shelters across the low-lying delta nation’s vast coastal region.

The weather office in the nation’s capital, Dhaka, said cyclone Bulbul weakened around midnight on Saturday, but threats for a violent landfall remained intact when tidal surge could sweep the vast coastal region. The latest weather forecast said the cyclone could cross the southwestern coastal region around 3:00 a.m. local time.

More than 300,000 people had moved to safer places and up to 1.8 million were expected to be evacuated by Saturday evening, said Enamur Rahman, Bangladesh’s junior disaster management minister.

The cyclone was moving over the Bay of Bengal and was initially expected to hit the country’s coast at around midnight. More than 5,000 shelters had been prepared by Saturday morning.

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Ayesha Khatun, a deputy director of the Meteorological Department, said in the evening that the impact of the cyclone was already being felt, with rain starting to fall in the region.

The weather office earlier Saturday issued the most severe storm signal for Bulbul, which was packing maximum sustained winds of 74 kph (46 mph) and gusts of up to 150 kph (93 mph).

It said the southwestern Khulna region could be the worst hit. The region has the world’s largest mangrove forest, the Sundarbans, which straddles the Bangladesh-India border.

The weather office said coastal districts were likely to be inundated by storm surges of 1 1/2-2 metres (5-7 feet) above normal tide because of the impact of the cyclone.

Several ships from Bangladesh’s navy and coast guard were kept ready in parts of the region for an emergency response, said the domestic TV station Independent.

The storm is also expected to impact parts of northeastern India, where precautions were also being taken.

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According to U.S.-based AccuWeather Inc., Bulbul strengthened from a deep depression into a tropical cyclone on Thursday morning, and by Friday afternoon had strengthened into a severe cyclone.

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With winds around 130-140 kph (80-87 mph), Bulbul was the equivalent of a Category 1 or 2 hurricane in the Atlantic, it said.

Rahman said the government suspended weekend leave for government officials in 13 coastal districts on Saturday.

As the day progressed, volunteers used loudspeakers to ask people to move to shelters in Chittagong and other regions, according to the disaster management ministry. In the Cox’s Bazar coastal district, tourists were alerted to stay in their hotels, while a few hundred visitors were stuck on Saint Martins Island.

Authorities suspended all activities in the country’s main seaports, including in Chittagong, which handles almost 80% of Bangladesh’s exports and imports. All vessels and fishing boats were told to stop operating.

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Local authorities ordered school buildings and mosques to be used as shelters in addition to dedicated cyclone shelters — raised concrete buildings that have been built over the past decades.

Bangladesh, a nation of 160 million people, has a history of violent cyclones. But disaster preparedness programs in recent decades have upgraded the country’s capacity to deal with natural disasters, resulting in fewer casualties.