BARGUNA, Bangladesh – Helicopters airlifted food to hungry survivors Monday while rescuers struggled to reach remote areas devastated by Bangladesh's worst cyclone in a decade, amid fears the death toll could be far higher than the official figure of 2,400.
The army helicopters carried mostly high-protein cookies supplied by the World Food Program, said Emamul Haque, a spokesman for the WFP office in Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka, which is coordinating international relief efforts.
International aid organizations promised initial packages of $25 million during a meeting with Bangladesh agencies Monday, Haque said.
The official death toll from Tropical Cyclone Sidr reached 2,407 on Monday, according to the Disaster Management Ministry. However, local television stations said it had already passed 3,000, and there were fears it could be much higher.
The Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, the Islamic equivalent of the Red Cross, warned the toll could hit 10,000 once rescuers reach outlying islands, saying the estimate came from volunteers in rescue operations so far.
Grieving survivors had grim tales about losing loved ones during the night of the disaster.
In Galachipa, a fishing village along the coast in Patuakhali district, Dhalan Mridha and his family ignored the high cyclone alert issued by the authorities through radio and the Red Crescent volunteers.
When Mridha realized his mistake, it was too late.
"Just before midnight the winds came like hundreds of demons. Our small hut was swept away like a piece of paper and we all ran for shelter," said Mridha, a 45-year-old farm worker, weeping.
Mridha was separated from his wife, mother and two children while on his way to the shelter, a two-story building several blocks from his home. The next morning he found their bodies stuck up in a battered bush along the coast.
Mridha said he was too exhausted even to cry for their loved ones.
Local media described much of the coast as a vast valley of death and destruction, and said many grieving families buried their relatives in the same grave because they lacked any adult male survivors to dig graves.
On Sunday, many hungry survivors scrambled for food as rescue workers cleared fallen trees and twisted roofs from roads to reach remote villages in a relief effort in which global aid groups have teamed up with the Bangladesh army.
Relief items like tents, rice and water have been slow to reach many.
Government officials defended the relief efforts so far, and expressed confidence that authorities are up to the task.
"We have enough food and water," said Shahidul Islam, the top official in Bagerhat, a battered district near the town of Barguna. "We are going to overcome the problem."
Disaster Management Secretary Aiyub Bhuiyan met with representatives from the United Nations and international aid groups Sunday to discuss the emergency response.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement that several million dollars are available from the U.N.'s emergency response funds, depending on the need.
He expressed his "profound condolences to the people and government of Bangladesh for the many deaths and the destruction involved, and the full solidarity of the U.N. system at this time of crisis," the statement said.