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U.S. Navy to deliver food and medical supplies to cyclone-hit Bangladesh

The U.S. Navy prepares to deliver food, medical equipment and medications to hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis whose homes were destroyed by Cyclone Sidr, a top U.S. military commander said.

The arrival of the USS Kearsage near the Bangladesh coast came as authorities and aid workers warned that Bangladesh faces acute food shortages after the devastating storm destroyed crops and homes across a large swath of the country.

"We are here to help the people in their time of need," Adm. Timothy Keating, the top U.S. military commander in the Pacific Ocean, told reporters.

The first ship arrived Thursday and Keating said a second ship, the USS Essex, would arrive in coming days, with assistance at the request of the Bangladeshi government.

The ships are each carrying about 20 helicopters that will help deliver water, food and medical supplies to survivors, U.S. officials said. The ships will coordinate with the Bangladeshi military.

"We are excited to be able to respond to the immediate needs of the survivors," said Geeta Pasi, the top U.S. diplomat in Dhaka.

U.S. medical teams have been distributing water purification tablets in the stricken zones to prevent outbreaks of waterborne diseases, Pasi said.

With many drinking water wells destroyed by the cyclone, the need for clean water was becoming critical to ward off cholera and severe diarrhea.

The government has pledged to feed more than two million people left destitute by the storm, which killed about 3,200 people.

Since the Nov. 15 storm hit southwestern Bangladesh, officials and relief agencies have struggled to get desperately needed rice, drinking water and tents to remote villages.

The government will distribute 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of rice per month to each of the estimated 2.5 million people, many of them in crowded relief camps, starting Dec. 1, said Tapan Chowdhoury, the government's adviser on food and disaster management. The program will last at least four months, he said.

Kelly Stevenson, the Bangladesh director of Save the Children, said the charity estimates that 50 to 90 percent of the region's rice crop has been destroyed, leaving up to 3 million people at risk of food shortages over the next six months.

Bangladesh has received pledges of international aid of US$450 million, Food and Disaster Management secretary Mohammad Ayub Mia said Thursday after a meeting with donors. Much of that comes from a US$250 million pledge from the World Bank.

But in the short term, aid workers were struggling to get enough aid to the worst-affected coastal region, where a shortage of supplies has led to fistfights among survivors at relief centers.

"Thousands of families are facing the real possibility of a second wave of death that can result from lack of clean water, food, shelter and medical supplies," said Stevenson.

Meanwhile, several aid groups continued work to help orphans or children who were traumatized by the cyclone experience.

"Some saw their relatives killed by trees that fell on their homes, or they saw dead bodies - something many of them had never seen before," Raphael Palma of World Vision Bangladesh said after visiting Khulna and Bagerhat districts. "They are still somehow traumatized and need support."

UNICEF has set up special shelters for children affected by the storm, providing medical and psychological support as well as recreational activities, Zafrin Chowdhury, said spokeswoman Zafrin Chowdhury.

UNICEF was also working with local groups to compile a list of children orphaned during the storm, and to help place them with surviving relatives, Chowdhury said.

A week after the storm, bodies were also still washing ashore.

The official death toll stood at 3,199, said Lt. Col. Main Ullah Chowdhury, spokesman for the army that is coordinating the relief and rescue work.

The Disaster Management Ministry said 1,724 people were missing and 28,188 people had been injured. It said the cyclone destroyed 458,804 houses and partially damaged another 665,529.

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