“The Great Bhola Cyclone,” as Bangladeshis call it, was the cataclysm that devastated their homeland and killed as many as half a million people overnight on Nov. 12-13, 1970, months ahead of its declaration of independence and a war that led to its birth as a new nation.
The cyclone churned winds of up to 224 kph (140 mph) when it struck what was then East Pakistan, bringing major flooding to the densely populated Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta, as water levels throughout the region rose as high 10 to 30 feet.
Fifty years on, survivor Putul Das Gupta, 71, recalls the loss of lives.
“Dead bodies were seen in every affected area. There was no one to bury those bodies,” he told BenarNews.
“Islands like Sandwip were the most affected. The then-Pakistan government created a barrier, though Maulana Bhasani tried to visit those affected areas,” he said, referring to the Islamic scholar and political leader who died in 1976 at the age of 95.
Considered one of the deadliest tropical storms on record, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the United States estimated that the Bhola Cyclone caused U.S. $86 million in damage, a figure that would be $577 million in 2020 because of inflation.
Md. Mohsin, a senior official at Bangladesh’s Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief Ministry, said the nation today is better equipped to deal with severe weather systems.
“There were no precautionary measures at that time. The then-Pakistan government didn’t even give emphasis on the issue,” the additional secretary told BenarNews.
“But now, we get warnings 10 days prior to any cyclone. We can understand any movement regarding an impending cyclone.”
In addition, the ministry has about 74,000 volunteers and cyclone shelters established across the nation.
“We bring people to cyclone shelters once the danger signal goes to 4 or 5. We have built many dams to protect people and land from cyclones,” Mohsin said.
Bangladesh has become a role model in terms of dealing with natural disasters, Mohsin said.
“The number of deaths has come down to single digits,” he said. “Recent cyclones Bulbul, Amphan and Fani claimed fewer deaths compared to neighboring countries.”