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Bangladesh: Emergency Team Assesses Remote Areas
Interview with MSF Emergency Team Member Maria Teresa de Magalahaes
December 4, 2007
After Cyclone Sidr struck southern Bangladesh on November 15, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) dispatched medical staff, logisticians, and water and sanitation experts to five badly hit districts. Due to difficult access to the isolated islands off the coast of Bangladesh, some communities have still received little aid. Maria Teresa de Magalahaes is part of the emergency team sent to assess the situation and identify villages in need of assistance in the most remote areas of Barguna and Patuakhali districts.
How do you decide where to intervene?
First, we meet with the local health authorities. We then look at the statistics available and check the news and talk to partner organizations. In Barguna and Patukhali, we looked at the mobile clinics run by the government and other NGOs. In general, we focus on where the cyclone has left people most in need. I visited hospitals in the southern district and I tried to reach the areas that were difficult to access. A big part of my job is to actively look for people who have been wounded or have fallen sick after the cyclone. The local population is also a great source of information. News travels fast and they tell us where to go and where there's been a lot of damage. However, it all needs to be checked. Yesterday, for example, I visited a place we thought would be affected, but in fact, the destruction involved mainly the loss of crops.
What is the biggest emergency at this stage?
Right now, the population lacks most of all of blankets, jerry cans for water, cooking utensils, clothes, all the materials to cope with their day-to-day life and rebuild their houses. From one day to the next, people have lost everything. When the cyclone hit, the water surged along the coast. People said it came up to more than two meters (six-and-a-half feet) in some places. When the water pulled back, the current was very strong and took everything away. People tried to climb up the trees and many were left with only the clothes they were wearing that day.
You visited the population and the hospitals; what medical needs did you observe?
There are a lot of respiratory infections, especially with children because they don't have blankets and it is cold at night. In these areas, we have seen few wounded; the people who suffer from fractures or are seriously wounded are already hospitalized. The government has done a very good job in terms of the logistics. Two or three days after the cyclone, those who had serious head or spinal injuries were referred to a hospital. But now, most of the time people get wounded because they are bare footed and they are walking around in the rubble, or they are on the roof trying to fix their house and they fall because it's slippery.
Were people warned about the cyclone before it came?
There were warnings about the cyclone, the army went round, and alerts were issued on the radio and on loud speakers in many villages. However, not all villages were reached by those alerts, particularly in the most remote areas. Many cyclone shelters were built, but some of the villages are really remote and in some places the shelters were far. In some cases, the shelters were too crowded and couldn't take all the people. In most places, people also sought protection in concrete governmental buildings or in schools.
How bad is the destruction in the areas you assessed?
In certain areas, such as Padna and Kachira in Barguna district, and around Patharghata sub-district on the southeast tip of the coast, the destruction is very visible. Houses made of wood and metal have been washed away, and many people died or disappeared. It gives a good idea of the violence of the water. Over three kilometers (close to two miles) along the road, 8,000 people have been very affected, but it's also where most of the relief agencies are working now. In more remote areas, aid has not yet reached the population, and that's where we want to focus. In many places, people have also lost their livelihood, their cattle, their lands, their boats and fishing nets.
How challenging has it been to bring assistance to these remote villages?
Most of the time, we cannot use the roads to go to these villages. Often, they've been damaged, therefore, we use cars and motorbikes, and then we try to reach the river and use boats. We use trawlers to transport the kits, and we use speedboats to go from one island to the next quickly. We can't take a truck to distribute the relief aid and the distribution by boat takes time. Right now, we are doing medical activities through mobile clinics in the Mathbaria area of Pirojpur district and the distribution of relief items in Galachipa in Patuakhali. We also continue our assessments to identify areas where people need assistance, and we look for possible disease outbreaks.