A powerful cyclone has hit the coastlines of Bangladesh and Myanmar after intensifying into the equivalent of a category-five storm.
Cyclone Mocha did not make landfall at the sprawling refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar as earlier feared, but still tore apart hundreds of makeshift shelters.
At least six people have been reported dead in Myanmar.
Up to 90 per cent of the western Rakhine state’s capital city Sittwe has been destroyed, residents told the BBC.
The Burmese military has declared the whole of Rakhine as a natural disaster area.
By late Sunday, the storm had largely passed. Bangladesh’s disaster official Kamrul Hasan said the cyclone caused “no major damage”, but landslides and floods are still hitting the country. No casualties have been reported in Bangladesh so far.
Myanmar appears to have borne more direct impact, with the storm crashing through houses and cutting power lines in Rakhine state. Myanmar’s meteorological department said it pounded through the country at about 209km/h (130 mph).
Camps for displaced Rohingya in the state have also been ripped apart.
Local media reported that a 14-year-old boy were among those reported dead – he was killed by a falling tree in the state.
Electricity and wireless connections were disrupted across much of Sittwe. Footage online showed roofs being blown off houses, telecom towers brought down, and billboards flying off buildings amid teeming rain across the region.
Authorities have declared Rakhine state a natural disaster area, while the Myanmar Red Cross Society said it was “preparing for a major emergency response”.
Myanmar appears to have borne more direct impact from the cyclone
Authorities in Bangladesh had evacuated 750,000 people ahead of the storm.
The streets of Cox’s Bazar emptied as the cyclone intensified – the skies darkened, the winds picked up pace and the rains pounded down.
Hundreds of people crammed into a school which had been turned into a temporary cyclone shelter.
Mothers with babies, young children, the elderly and the frail packed into any available space in the classrooms, sleeping on desks and sitting under them.
As many arrived at the shelter in rickshaws and on foot, they brought their livestock – cattle, chickens, goats – as well as mats to sleep on.
They had come from fishing and coastal villages up to two hours away, making a difficult choice.
“I didn’t want to leave my house,” said Sumi Akter, who lives on a riverbank.
Sumi and others we met here say they have lived through other cyclones in recent years and are resigned to the regular pattern of leaving their homes to the mercy of nature.
Storm surges of up to four metres could swamp villages in low-lying areas. Sumi and others here are fearful their homes may be submerged.
“I wish the homes we lived in were built more strongly,” she said.
Jannat, aged 17, whom we had met the day before in the same shelter, said she too was terrified of what might happen to her home on the riverbank.
Last year, another cyclone, Sitrang, destroyed her house, forcing her to spend what little money she had on repairing it.
“How can I live if this keeps happening? I can’t afford to rebuild it – we are very poor,” she said.
Nature was also punishing the poor in the world’s largest refugee camp nearby.
Bangladesh’s government does not allow Rohingya refugees to leave the camps, nor to build permanent structures.
As the cyclone hit, they hunkered down in flimsy bamboo shelters with tarpaulin roofs. Some were moved to community shelters within the camps, which offered little more protection.
Authorities told the BBC that more than 1,300 shelters were damaged by the wind, as were 16 mosques and learning centres. Trees had fallen in the camps, while two landslides also caused some damage.
The tarpaulin that covered Mohammed Ayub’s shelter was torn off by the winds. Now he and his family of eight are living in the open, in wet and miserable weather.
Having spent the days before terrified of what Cyclone Mocha could bring, Mohammed was relieved the camps didn’t take a direct hit from the storm.
Mizanur Rahman, from the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner, said that as far as he was aware, there were no casualties in the camps as a result of the cyclone.
Forecasters warned Cyclone Mocha could be the most powerful storm seen in Bangladesh in nearly two decades.
The Bangladeshi meteorological department office said the maximum sustained wind speed within 75km (45 miles) of the centre of the cyclone was about 195km/h (120mph), with gusts and squalls of 215km/h.
In preparation for the storm’s arrival, nearby airports had been shut, fishermen were ordered to suspend their work and 1,500 shelters set up as people from vulnerable areas were moved to safer spots.
In 2008, Cyclone Nargis tore through the southern coastal regions of Myanmar, killing almost 140,000 people and severely affecting millions. Most of those who died were killed by a 3.5 metre wall of water that hit the low-lying Irrawaddy Delta.
By Rajini Vaidyanathan
Additional reporting by Kelly Ng in Singapore