Carter Wilbur serves as the Vice Consul at the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Even though I'm a member of the Foreign Service, the ‘diplomatic corps', I recently found myself surrounded by members of the United States Marine Corps in a helicopter which bore a striking resemblance to the ones you see in Vietnam-era war movies. Instead of weapons, we carried notebooks and cameras, since these Marines are the Humanitarian Assistance Survey Team from the United States Marine Corps' III Marine Expeditionary Force. Accompanied by Bangladeshi military officers we were on a flight to survey the damage from Cyclone Sidr in the southern portion of Bangladesh, and plan for the delivery of U.S. government humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
As we flew south out of Dhaka, we all were watching closely for the first signs of destruction. As we progressed south towards the port of Mongla, we began seeing signs of damage: trees down, small structures demolished, and cell phone service (often the only means of communication for remote villages) began to be interrupted. As we progressed further south, into the Sundarbans, a World Heritage Site and home to the rare Royal Bengal Tiger, more and more trees were visibly damaged or even completely uprooted. Turning east to parallel the coast, we crossed Sarankhola and saw real devastation. Homes made of corrugated iron sheets were on their side, upside down, and even one thrown into a rice paddy. As this area is crisscrossed with waterways, there are many boats, often the sole source of livelihood for villagers – and we saw many boats washed up on the banks.
Continuing east from Sarankhola, we crossed into an area which was largely agricultural, primarily growing rice. The rice, about two weeks away from harvest, was almost completely ruined. We were at an altitude of 500 to 1000 feet above the ground, but the rice was flattened as if we were hovering mere inches over it. The winds of Cyclone Sidr had blown down and waterlogged the tall sheaves of rice, and they are now useless. We all recognized that there are certainly immediate needs of the people in these areas, but they are also going to require long-term assistance as it will be at least four months before the next possible crop cycle for them.
We also say signs that there is a strong response to the humanitarian needs of the people in this area. We saw a Bangladeshi Coast Guard vessel at anchor in a river, ferrying relief goods to an orderly crowd ashore on small, local boats. In other locations, we saw Bangladeshi military landing craft loaded with bags of relief goods traveling the waterways, and crowd receiving bags from what looked like likely helicopter landing areas.
We stopped at Barisal, the principal airport in Bangladesh's central southern region to meet with the regional commander from the Bangladesh Army, coordinating the relief effort there. An artillery commander, his unit was now overseeing the distribution of relief goods brought down from Dhaka by helicopter and aircraft.
While there really aren't words to describe how you feel seeing the destruction that we saw, it was also clear that the loss of life was substantially lower than in previous, similar storms. It seems that now Bangladesh faces, possibly for the first time, a disaster of this magnitude combined with survivors in these numbers. The immediate storm has passed, but the task of reestablishing of basic hygiene, potable water production/distribution, shelter, and agriculture is just beginning. I was proud to see warriors like these Marines throw their same intensity and dedication into this new mission, of helping Bangladesh face this challenge.