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Beset by Bay's Killer Storms, Bangladesh Prepares and Hopes

Although the tsunami missed its shores, typhoons are common, including a 1991 super cyclone that took 140,000 lives.

February 27, 2005|Charles J. Hanley | Associated Press Writer

KUTUBDIA ISLAND, Bangladesh — The tsunami spared them, but on south Asia's coast of calamities, where the sea kills with regularity and abandon, they know their turn will come.

"God knows what will happen to us next time," Nur Hussein said. The 45-year-old peasant stood beneath a sturdy rain tree he climbed and clung to in 1991, when a super cyclone drove 25-foot-deep waters across flat little Kutubdia, sweeping 19 of his family to their deaths along with 10,000 other islanders.

Fourteen years have passed and Bangladesh is now better prepared for the Bay of Bengal's killer storms, with hundreds of concrete shelters and thousands of volunteers to warn and help the population when a cyclone approaches.

But Hussein, like other Bangladeshis, has no shelter near his hut. Sea walls promised long ago exist only on paper. Meteorologists in the distant capital work with outdated forecasting tools. And too many of the volunteers lack batteries for megaphones and bicycles for their rounds.

"My first aid kit has been empty for three or four years," said Dipurani Sil, 35, a first aid team member here.

In the aftermath of the Dec. 26 tsunami that devastated coastlines in nearby countries, Bangladesh stands as an example of how one impoverished land, with foreign help, has recovered from past catastrophes and prepared for future ones -- and of how it has not.

The regional head of the national Cyclone Preparedness Program is candid about its shortcomings. "If it happened today, all the people would know a super cyclone was coming, but due to the shortage of cyclone shelters, many people would still be killed," Golam Rabbani said at his radio-equipped command center in Chittagong, a port city 30 miles north of here.

That still would be an improvement over 1991, when the nearby mainland district of Banshkhali got no warning, and 40,000 people there died.

The world was stunned by the number of lives lost in December's earthquake-tsunami in the Indian Ocean -- more than 150,000 in 11 nations. But even greater numbers have perished on Bangladesh's 440-mile coast.

A staggering 300,000 to 500,000 people were killed when a cyclone slammed into the central coast in November 1970, and some 140,000 in the 1991 disaster in the southeast. Dozens of other cyclones have killed more than 60,000 Bangladeshis since 1960.

Storm surges created by cyclones, similar to a tsunami's "walls of water," are magnified over the shallow depths of Bangladesh's continental shelf. In the 1970 storm, whose 138-mph winds made it a "super" cyclone, the surge reached 30 feet.

A generation later, on the night of April 29, 1991, a cyclone with 140-mph winds made landfall around Chittagong. The 100,000 people of 13-mile-long, fish-shaped Kutubdia island, mostly rice sharecroppers and fishermen living 4,000 to a square mile, huddled in flimsy bamboo shacks. Along nearby beaches, 10-foot-high mud embankments faced a 25-foot storm surge.

Reporters flying over Kutubdia saw the victims everywhere -- bloated, decomposing, afloat in the water.

"I saw thousands and thousands of dead bodies. Oh!" said Chowdhury Kamal Ibne Yusuf, who was then health minister. "We were not prepared. There was no preparation at all."

Even in Chittagong, where warnings were issued, 3,000 died when the sea washed over the 2-mile-wide Patenga peninsula.

"There were always warnings before, and nothing happened. People didn't listen," recalled a survivor named Solaiman, 35, who lost 18 family members.

"In '91, you can say we were at the stage you now see in Sri Lanka and the Maldives with the tsunami," said Mohammad Nojibur Rahman, a government disaster-prevention expert.

Bangladesh then moved into the next stage, a year later, creating a ministry for disaster management, now led by Yusuf. Foreign donors and Bangladeshi agencies began building shelters, hundreds of two- or three-story concrete boxes raised on pillars, each able to hold between a few hundred and 3,000 people. Because of the flat and overpopulated terrain, poor roads and relatively short-notice alerts, people have nowhere else to flee.

More than 2,000 shelters now dot this coast of marsh and paddy. Kutubdia has 92 shelters, including one, financed by the European Union, near where 250 islanders saved themselves by jamming onto a small mosque's rooftop in 1991.

But Bangladesh is a crowded land -- 141 million people in a place the size of Iowa -- and officials acknowledge that at least 3,000 more shelters are needed.

Kutubdia itself needs 30 more, an official said. Outside that small mosque, Mohammad Yunus, who fled to its roof as a teenager, said the new shelter is too small. "It can hold only half the people around here."

Yusuf, the Cabinet minister, said there would be fewer casualties today if a storm like 1991's struck, but still "there's a huge need for more shelters" -- with no money and no plans for them.

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