“November 12, 1970. No one would ever forget it. Two hundred and fifty miles of coastline on the Bay of Bengal was devastated, a huge V chewed out of the side of the country. Homes, crops, cattle and poultry, everything blown or washed away. To where? It was impossible to say. Though I imagined this place, somewhere to the north, butted up against the Himalayas, where the wind and waves had died down, and a massive pile of wood and metal, clothes, shoes, steel pots, pans, broken dishes, bodies of chickens and cows and goats, family photos, jewellery, school projects and notebooks, dolls, diapers and every single edible thing in the country lay. Cemented together by that distinctive silt that was the soil of East Pakistan.”
From This Innocent Corner
The deadliest tropical cyclone in world history hit the coast of what is now Bangladesh in the middle of the night nearly forty years ago on November 12, 1970. It is estimated that up to 500,000 people died. No one really knows how many – records were not reliable, if they existed at all, and with that huge number of deaths, burial of the bodies was more important than identification and record-keeping. However, the death toll was most certainly ridiculously miscalculated by the government whose first official estimate was 50 dead.
In total, nearly 3.6 million people were affected by the cyclone.
The tropical cyclone which had no name is now often referred to as the 1970 Bhola Cyclone (named after the coastal district which was directly in the storm’s path). The storm sustained winds of 185 km/h – “sustained” means as measured over the course of three minutes – and therefore, is designated a “Category 3” storm. By way of comparison, the recent hurricane Igor that hit Newfoundland in October 2010 was “Category 1.” Katrina was also a “Category 3” storm.
There was an early warning system in place. Meteorologists knew about the storm, and the fact that it was intensifying as it approached the coast. However, the warnings on radio were restricted to the usual weather reports. Regular programming was not interrupted.
One reason was a much smaller cyclone that hit the coast on October 23, a mere three weeks earlier. Radio programming had been interrupted, at-risk areas had been evacuated, and in the end, the storm did not hit with the force that was expected, and only 300 people died. The authorities did not want to repeat this experience. According to other accounts, the authorities believed everyone had already taken shelter, including the fishermen in the Bay of Bengal, and there was no need to issue further warnings.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was running for office in the election that had been scheduled for early December that year, toured the devastated region. When he returned to Dhaka, he said at a press conference, “I cannot find words adequate to describe the holocaust which the cyclone and tidal bore have left in their trail. Nor can I adequately convey in words the suffering and the misery of those who have survived. Whole areas have been totally depopulated. In many areas of Patuakhali, Bhola and Noakhali barely 20 to 25 per cent of the total population has survived. The survivors have lost their homes, their crops, their cattle; in fact they have lost all their worldly belongings. They are without clothes, without shelter and in many of the areas without any food or drinking water. The wounds on their bodies are turning septic. They face death from starvation, exposure and disease.”
Most of the dead were believed to have been women and children. They could not hold onto trees and buildings when the wall of a wave, the storm surge, hit them.
Relief efforts were slow for so many tragic reasons. Bodies were not buried quickly enough. Cholera and other diseases broke out. People ate tree roots and drank water from ponds in which corpses were rotting because they had no other choice.
Still, the 1970 cyclone may have changed the course of history. At that time, Bangladesh was East Pakistan, and was part of a larger nation, Pakistan, divided geographically by the land mass of India. However, the people of East Pakistan had been struggling to achieve some level of autonomy, believing it was not just geography that separated them from their western cousins. The west controlled the country, and set policies that favoured west over east. When the government response to the cyclone was so slow and inadequate, people’s beliefs against the west were reinforced. The ruling party suffered at the polls and they lost the election. East Pakistani politician Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was elected leader of the entire nation. This eventually led to political crisis and the Liberation War in 1971.
Today, the country is still struck by cyclonic storms from a season that lasts from May to November. The most recent devastating cyclonic storm was in November 2007. Cyclone Sidr was a Category 5 storm that is estimated by several international development agencies to have killed up to 10,000 people. But it is a far cry from the number of dead and amount of destruction that would have occurred had cyclone preparedness not improved as much as it has since 1970. Though the damage done in that storm should not be underestimated, Oxfam estimates 100,000 people’s lives were saved because of improvements to cyclone preparedness in the country.
In the forty years since the Bhola Cyclone, the early warning system has been recast and upgraded many times, and as new technologies become available, preparedness is under steady reform. It consists of everything from new forecasting devices for meteorologists, to an emergency action plan carried out by the country’s national radio broadcaster, to texting (!!), to a flagging system, even to a cadre of women with megaphones who will spread the word. The British Red Cross is one of the organizations at the centre of cyclone preparedness.
In the video, you can see what a cyclone shelter looks like. They are easily seen all over the country once you get near the coastline. Many of them mushroomed up in the years that I lived in Bangladesh. The easy availability of the shelters was a great help. But building the shelters was not enough. Efforts also had to be made to encourage people to use them – the video mentions the husbands who did not allow their wives to go to the shelters. As well, people needed to be allowed to be able to bring their livestock to the shelter. (One of the reasons they sometimes did not use the shelters was because they preferred to protect their livestock from the storm.)
Another of the dramatic cyclones in Bangladeshi history took place in October 1942 when 40,000 people were killed. My grandfather, John Herring, with the Royal Air Force, was posted to Bengal at that time. Here’s one of several photos he took from the banks of the Hooghly River. It’s heart-breaking to see the dead like that and I wonder how my grandfather dealt with it.
I was very surprised in reading about cyclones to find that there remain questions about their exact cause. Though there are six certain conditions that may lead to a cyclone, many related to ocean temperatures, prevailing winds and other meteorological factors, the operative word here is “may.” Cyclonic storms still appear where none of those conditions appear to exist.