DHAKA, Bangadesh -- At least 1,400 people perished in a cyclone that battered 10 coastal districts of Bangladesh, but witnesses said at least 15,000 died and one official said the death toll could surpass 100,000.
'The devastation in the area is beyond description,' said President Mohammed Ershad, upon returning from a visit to the island of Sandwip, where he distributed food, clothing and medicine to survivors.
Officals in the chief martial law administrator's office in Dhaka said at least 5,000 people were injured by the Friday night cyclone and 500 more were missing in the wave of water that inundated 400 square miles of land southeast of Dhaka.
Dhaka newspapers reported the death toll could climb as high as 2,000 once communication was restored to islands cut off by the disaster, but witnesses rescued from the scene said the toll could climb as high as 15,000
Since about 300,000 laborers migrate to 100 of the 1,000 coastal islands to help harvest rice every May, officials said the number of dead could go even higher.
One authority, who was unidentified, said, 'If the death figures go beyond 100,000 I wouldn't be surpised, because these farm hands are not registered.'
So far 1,400 bodies have been recovered, 500 have been buried, and 500 others are awaiting burial.
The fates of three of the worst-hit islands, Urirchar, Liauhum and Montura, where at least 20,000 people live, was unknown becaise communications links could not be established.
But one survivor, Rafikul Islam, 38, a resident of Urirchar who was rescued from a creek, said everything on his island of about 10,000 inhabitants had been washed away.
Ershad visited Sandwip island, closer to shore, Sunday, where he visited the hospital and distributed relief.
On returning to Dhaka in the evening, he said the government would do everything possible to help the victims.
Zohra Begum, 21, a young woman rescued from Birbaksh island about 150 miles south of Dhaka, said 'Everything on our island, including 5,000 people, all temporary farmhands who had gone there for harvest, were washed away by a 15-foot tidal wave.'
She lost her brother, uncle and father in the cyclone, and was being treated for injuries at Noaahali Hospital.
The estuary hit by the cyclone is about 168 miles long, dotted with about 1,000 islands populated by 8.5 million people. Of this population, about four million were affected.
Officials said at least 10 fishing boats with 80 people were missing and a fishermen's association said 500 boats with more than 2,000 crew members were out at sea when the cyclone slammed the coast.
A 15-foot surge of water swept away hundreds of hamlets on remote islands in the Bay of Bengal, knocking out telephone lines and electricity and inundating low-lying districts, officials said.
They said damage would be the worst in the seven most populated islands -- Sandwip, Charmonai, Galachipa, Bangabali, Autubdia, St. Martin and Monpura.
Some officials were hopeful that protective enbankments, buffers and shelters built in the cyclone-prone area since 1970 -- many with U.S. financial assistance -- would limit the loss of life.
Officials were unable to reach the island of Monpura, which was virtually depopulated by a cyclone in 1970 that killed some 500,000 people. The current population is about 8,000 people.
An official on Hatiya said the cyclone had left that island's main town of 40,000 people under 3 feet of water and blown away at least half the thatched homes. Only seven lives, however, were lost in the town.
On Bhola, the biggest island with 1 million inhabitants, officials said nearly 70 percent of the dwellings had been destroyed.