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Weather Disasters In Perspective

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After yesterdays, shall we say 'excitement,'' a little perspective is called for.

This day 40 years ago marked the worst weather disaster of the 20th century. In the dead of night a cyclone burst across the coast of what was then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Winds gusting to more than 220km/h (140mph) sent a huge storm surge up to 10m (33ft) high smashing through homes as people slept, while tens of thousands of fishermen were swept away. Some people managed to survive by climbing treetops, but few escaped the raging floodwaters.

An estimated 500,000 people were killed, although the scale of the disaster was so vast that the true figure will never be known. About ten million survivors were left in desperate need of shelter, food, medicine and water. More than a million cattle were lost, and virtually all buildings and crops destroyed over about 8,000 sq km (3,000 sq miles) of land.

Many of the casualties could have been avoided, though. Weather satellites were in their infancy, but pictures from one satellite over the Bay of Bengal clearly showed the approaching storm. Cyclone warnings were broadcast on the radio, but a crucial code indicating the force of the cyclone was left out, and the public were left confused. In any case, many people had grown sceptical of cyclone warnings after several false alarms. After the disaster, though, cyclone forecasts were improved, a network of volunteers was trained for future emergencies, and strong cyclone shelters were built.

The political fallout from the cyclone was immense. Pakistan was divided into East and West separated by a large swathe of India. West Pakistan ruled the nation, but many politicians in East Pakistan were agitating for more autonomy or even independence. The government in West Pakistan was slow to send aid after the disaster and discontent in East Pakistan grew rapidly until war broke out in March 1971. After months of fighting, East Pakistan gained independence and was renamed Bangladesh, while West Pakistan became Pakistan.


The Bhola cyclone on November 11, 1970, at 0858 UTC


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