Discuss as:

One million flee as Cyclone Mahasen batters Bangladesh coast

Cyclone Mahasen slammed into Bangladesh's low-lying coast as evacuees huddled in shelters from a storm the United Nations says threatens 4.1 million people. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.

COX'S BAZAR, Bangladesh -- Cyclone Mahasen struck the southern coast of Bangladesh on Thursday, lashing remote fishing villages with heavy rain and fierce winds that flattened mud and straw huts and forced the evacuation of more than 1 million people.

The main section of the storm reached land Thursday and immediately began weakening, according to Mohammad Shah Alam, director of the Bangladesh Meteorological Department. However, its forward movement was also slowing, meaning that towns in its path would have to weather the storm for longer, he said.

Even before the brunt of the storm hit, at least 18 deaths related to Mahasen were reported in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

The U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs had said Wednesday that depending on its trajectory, the storm could bring life-threatening conditions to about 8.2 million people in Bangladesh, Myanmar and northeast India. But the storm appeared to spare at least some areas once thought to be at risk.

In the seafront resort town of Cox's Bazar, tens of thousands of people had fled shanty homes along the coast and packed into cyclone shelters, hotels, schools and government office buildings. But by Thursday afternoon, the sun was shining and local government administrator Ruhul Amin said he planned to close the shelters by that evening.

Munir Uz Zaman / AFP - Getty Images

Bangladeshi pedestrians gather to watch the sea at a beach while Cyclone Mahasen heads toward landfall in Chittagong on Thursday.

"Thank God we have been spared this time," Amin said.

Mahasen hit land with maximum wind speeds of about 62 mph and quickly weakened to 56 mph, said Alam, the meteorological official.

Along Myanmar's western coast, danger was particularly high for tens of thousands of displaced Rohingya people living in plastic-roofed tents and huts made of reeds in dozens of refugee camps.

Gemunu Amarasinghe / AP

An internally displaced Rohingya man pushes a rickshaw with children and belongings leaving a camp for displaced Rohingya people in Sittwe, northwestern Rakhine State, in Myanmar on Thursday. Members of the displaced minority started moving to safer shelters ahead of the arrival of Cyclone Mahasen.

Driven from their homes by violence, some members of the Muslim minority group refused to follow evacuation orders. Many distrust officials in the majority-Buddhist country, where Rohingya have faced decades of discrimination.

U.N. officials, hoping they would inspire greater trust, fanned out across the area to encourage people to leave. They said Thursday that more than 35,000 people had been relocated.

In Bangladesh, river ferries and boat service were suspended, and scores of factories near the choppy Bay of Bengal were closed. The military said it was keeping 22 navy ships and 19 Air Force helicopters at the ready.

"We have seen such a disaster before," said Mohammad Abu Taleb, who shut down his convenience shop in Cox's Bazar, a city of 200,000. "It's better to stay home. I'm not taking any chance."

A 1991 cyclone that slammed into Bangladesh from the Bay of Bengal killed an estimated 139,000 people and left millions homeless. In 2008, Myanmar's southern delta was devastated Cyclone Nargis, which swept away entire farming villages and killed more than 130,000 people. Both those cyclones were much more powerful than Cyclone Mahasen, which is rated Category 1 — the weakest level.

Heavy rain and storm surge could prove deadlier than the wind. Bangladesh's meteorological office said the cyclone was moving so slowly it may take a whole day for it to pass the Bangladesh coast.