Cyclone Mocha has winds of up to 220 kilometers per hour, according to the Indian Meteorological Office, which is equivalent to a category four hurricane.
Mocha is expected to weaken before making landfall Sunday morning between Cox’s Bazar – where about a million Rohingya refugees live in camps filled largely with precarious housing – and settle on Burma’s western Rakhine coast.
On Saturday, Sittwe residents packed their belongings and pets into cars, trucks and tuk-tuks and headed for higher ground, AFP correspondents said.
“Our grandmother is with us and we have to take care of her… There is only one man left in Sittwe to take care of our homes,” Khini Min told AFP from a truck loaded with his relatives on a road leading out of the state capital.
Shops and markets were closed in the town of about 150,000 people, with many locals taking refuge in monasteries.
For his part, Kyaw Tin, 40, said he could not leave the area because his son was in the hospital.
He added, “I hope that this cyclone does not reach our state … I am worried that the impact of this cyclone on our state will be similar to that of Nargis,” referring to the storm that hit the country in 2008 and claimed the lives of more than 130,000 people in southern Burma.
Burma’s ruling military group is supervising evacuations from villages along the Rakhine coast, according to state media in Burma on Friday.
Myanmar Airways International said it had suspended all flights to Rakhine state on Monday.
In neighboring Bangladesh, officials took action to evacuate Rohingya refugees from “dangerous areas” to community centers, while hundreds of people fled one of the country’s best resorts.
“Cyclone Mocha is the strongest storm since Cyclone Sidr,” which hit the southern coast of Bangladesh in November 2007, killing more than 3,000 people and causing billions of dollars in damages, Azizur Rahman, head of the Bangladesh Meteorological Department, told AFP.
The Bangladeshi authorities have banned the Rohingya from building concrete homes, fearing that this will push them to settle in the country permanently instead of returning to Burma, from which they fled five years ago.
“We live in houses made of tarpaulin and bamboo,” said refugee Inam Ahmed, who lives in the Nayapara camp near the border town of Teknaf.
“We are afraid. We do not know where to turn. We are in a state of panic,” he added.
Meteorologists expect that the hurricane will cause heavy rains that may lead to landslides. While most of the camps are built on hillsides, landslides are a common phenomenon in the area.
Mocha is also expected to unleash floods up to four meters high that could inundate low-lying coastal and riverine villages.
Officials said thousands of volunteers were evacuating Rohingya from “dangerous areas” to more solid facilities such as schools.
But Bangladesh’s deputy commissioner for refugees, Shamsud Doza, told AFP: “All Rohingya in the camps are at risk.”
Panic gripped about 8,000 people on the southernmost atoll of St. Martin, one of the country’s best resorts, in the path of the storm.
“Katir left. It’s an island in the middle of the sea. We’ve been living in fear for days,” said Dilara Begum, a resident of St. Martin, who moved to Teknaf to wait out the storm.
Officials reported that about 1,000 residents of St. Martin’s Island did the same.
Also, operations were suspended in Chittagong, Bangladesh’s largest seaport, with boat transport and fishing halted.