Over half million people die in worst cyclone in world history

The Pakistan Government reported an official body count of 191,951 with 14,834 more persons reported missing, but the actual death toll was undoubtedly higher because this valuation did not include the tens of thousands who were washed out to sea, buried in the mud, or died on outlying and remote islands and never found.

Table 2: Fatalities by district
Thana Deaths Mortality
Tazumuddin 77,000 46%
Char Fasson 38,000 22%
Lalmohan 23,000 22%
Sudharam 6,000 17%
Galchipa 44,000 14%
Ramgati 24,000 11%
Kalapara 8,000 9%
Hatiya 18,000 8%
Amtali 2,000 5%
Total 241,000 17.7%

Source:

No vulture, no dog, and even no insects were to be found anywhere. Just heaps of human bodies and carcasses.

A pakistani official fresh from an inspection of the cyclone-ravaged coastline of the Bay of Bengal (TIME magazine)

The whole area hit by the storm is low-lying, only a few feet above sea level, so destruction was total. Places just vanished.

Angus Macleod Gunn, author of "A Student Guide to Climate and Weather: Volume 1: Weather Extremes" (2010)

The storm left thousands of survivors with just their lives as it ruined or swept away their personal belongings - clothes, blankets, dishes, cooking utensils, and agricultural tools, in short, the basic day-to-day needs. The winds completely ripped away entire villages and their rice crops. Cholera, typhoid and other diseases followed. There are no reliable estimates of how many lives were lost. An 11-year lapse since the last census, the presence of thousands of migratory workers in the area and the difficulty in tracking them, the flight of people inland after the storm, inaccessibility of some of the areas, the influx of people to claim abandoned land, and poor level of local administration meant only a rough estimate could be given. Estimates range from 200,000 to more than 500,000, making it the deadliest cyclone, and one of the deadliest natural disaster ever on record. The number of people displaced was estimated at 50 million, two-third of the country's population. Close to 4 million people were directly affected and about half a million farm animals also perished, making it one of the 20th century's worst natural disasters.

Few devastating facts:

  • This cyclone was the sixth cyclonic storm of the 1970 North Indian Ocean cyclone season and also the season’s strongest. It reached a strength equal to that of a Category 3 hurricane.
  • Over $490 million (USD 2009) of damage occurred. Approximately 85% of homes in the area were destroyed or severely damaged, with the greatest destruction along the coast.
  • The storm surge wiped out villages with the most severely affected area, Tazumuddin, losing over 45% of its population (167,000 people) in the district of Thana alone.
  • Nearly 46,000 of the estimated 77,000 fishermen of the region perished in the cyclone, and those that survived were severely injured. Approximately 65% of the coastal region’s fishing industry was destroyed, in a region where about 80% of the protein consumed comes from fisheries.
  • In the 20th century, seven of the nine most deadly weather events in the world were tropical cyclones that struck Bangladesh.

Its magnitude was so great that the BBC journalist Paul Reynolds, in trying to make sense of the east Asian tsunami of 2005, invoked Cyclone Bhola.

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The official death toll published in the days after the storm was 225,000, representing 17% of the population in the area most strongly impacted by the cyclone. In all likelihood, however, this is a gross underestimate. The official death toll reflects only the deaths of people known to the government before the storm struck. In fact, the records probably seriously undercounted the region's population due to poor record keeping, a very high birth rate, and the inherent difficulty of keeping close tabs on the shifting lands and peoples of the Ganges delta. What is more, the state's ability to keep accurate population tallies was likely undermined by the delta people's distrust of the government, seen by many delta farmers as a corrupt, parasitical entity. The death figure also does not include an unknown number of migrant workers who were in the Ganges delta at the time of the Bhola Cyclone. Since most of the storm victims were washed to sea, and their bodies were never recovered, an exact or even approximate death toll for the Great Bhola Cyclone will probably never be known. Under such circumstances, the widely-given figure of 500,000 overall casualties is probably as good a guess as any.

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Majority of the victims were young children (29.2%) and elderly (20.7% ). After the disaster, only very few children could be seen in areas normally teeming with youngsters at play. Those children that were left were in a desperate position, starving and prone to disease, especially cholera. More women died than men, possibly due to men possessing more physical strength to reach and then hang on to safety on rooftops and trees.

Mass graves and bodies washed out into the sea

Many of the dead were buried in hastily constructed graves, but many more were washed out to sea by the fierce undertow of the receding tidal wave. Of the latter, about 90% were believed to have been washed back again.

In subsequent days, dead bodies and animal carcases were strewn over the coastal area decimated by the tidal wave. They were bloated after days in the water and tropical heat and give off an unbearable stench. The rotting bodies endangered water supplies and there were widespread outbreak of cholera and typhoid. Those that have been washed back have either been piled into hastily constructed mass graves, or the unidentifiable bodies were left to purify in the open. The stench of rotting corpses combine with the stench from the carcasses of dead cattle, spread the sickening smell of death across the island.

Toward week's end, some 6,000 Ansar militiamen and volunteers trudged into the flatlands to begin burying for $2 a corpse.

TIME magazine (1970)

To the people of East Pakistan, grief and disaster are a part of life-although never seen before on this gigantic scale. It is one of the world's worst disasters in history.

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Coastal damage

The coastline was left in utter destruction. Pakistani radio reported that there were no survivors on the 13 islands near Chittagong, covering 8,000 square kilometers, and nearly 18% of the residents in the directly affected region. A flight over the area showed the devastation was complete throughout the southern half of Bhola Island, and the rice crops of Bhola Island, Hatiya Island and the nearby mainland coastline were destroyed. Survivors claimed that 85% of the area homes were destroyed or severely damaged, with the greatest destruction occurring along the coast.

The airports at Chittagong and Cox's Bazaar were under 1m of water for several hours. Over 3.6 million people were directly affected by the cyclone, and the total damage from the storm was estimated at £55 million (in 1971, £300 million in 2006).

But for those who managed to survive, statistics do no matter. They have suffered a loss beyond all statistical meaning. Now, still alone in the sun-scorched days and the fog chill of the November nights, they try merely to survive. Driven not only by hope but by tearing and undeniable hunger, they grub in the drying muck for rotting grains of rice, drink turbid water from fouled wells and wait for help - or death from starvation or cholera. Far too many to be mourned, perhaps too many even to be disposed of, the corpses wash up again and again with the tide on the black beaches of the Bay of Bengal, and the vomit smell of death is everywhere.

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Bamboo housing crushed

The heavy winds snapped trees and systematically dismantled local houses, which were mostly of thatched grass, palm frond, or rope-lashed bamboo construction. These bamboo dwellings were carried away and their sites replaced with masses of mud. The low earth barriers that marked off rice paddies and homes provided no protection against the flood of water. Survivors tried to hold onto palm trees until the storm passed. Warnings of the approaching storm had been issued, but there was no way of communicating them to the many living on islands and more distant coastal areas. Large numbers were sleep when the storm surge reached them, and they had no chance to escape.

Desperate to avoid being drowned by the swirling floods, many delta farmers clambered atop their houses, though their roofs rarely survived for long in the ferocity of the flood and wind. After their homes shattered, the only solution for most storm victims was to climb the tallest tree they could find to avoid drowning. Unfortunately, some would encounter poisonous snakes here which had climbed to the treetop to seek shelter.

In some parts of the delta all the huts were destroyed completely. In others, survivors were able to set up house again in the grim remnants of their homes. But many more were without shelter, awaiting help.

Ali Hussain wasn't so lucky. He lived in a one-story house constructed of bamboo. "I caught hold of a palm tree and climbed it and hung on until the waters went down," he recalled. Small children and old people not strong enough to cling to trees perished. Jalal Ahmed lost his four children. Nurul Huq watched helplessly as his 75-year-old mother was swept away.

Harrowing account of those dreadful nights,

Because so much of the land is close to sea level, one quarter of East Pakistan's total land mass was underwater for a time. Once over land, the storm began to weaken, but it was still considered a cyclonic storm on 13 November 1970, when it sat about 65 miles to the southeast.

In 1970, there were no protective embankments, and the wind pushed a wall of water up to 6 meters (almost 20 ft) high across the level landscape and then, a little later, sucked it back again in the opposite direction. We were now surrounded by an earthen embankment, but it had never been tested. We headed to a solid masonry building, a local orphanage, for shelter. As the evening wore on, hundreds of people, mostly women and children, joined us, and this flow continued until about 8 o'clock, when it was impossible to move about outside. The cyclone's course shifted a little to the east. For us the wind peaked at three in the morning, but there was no flood. The morning dawned clear, cool, and bright, revealing uprooted trees, scattered roofing sheets, and collapsed homes and schools.

Our relatively good luck meant disaster for others, of course, and we learned from the radio that it was the tiny silt island of Urir Char in nearby Noakhali District that suffered the direct hit. Some 4,000 or 5,000 people died. But on the morning after the disaster, things looked a lot worse, and by the third day, one of Dhaka's English-language daily papers was headlining: "Death Toll Crosses 50,000".

Stuart Rutherford , then a representative of Action Aid, an UK-based NGO

Rice - East Pakistan's primary source of food - wiped out

The damage to property and crops was colossal. Over one million cattlehead were reported lost. More than 400,000 houses and 3,500 educational institutions were damaged. More than a million acres of rice paddies were lost, with their crops of rice only two weeks short of being harvested. Since the cyclone struck on the eve of rice harvest, food supplies were already at low ebb even before the storm struck. Nor was there any prospect of growing much food in the near future as most of the seed crop and farm tools had been washed away by the storm surge, and the paddies and fields were rendered temporarily sterile by saltwater contamination. The total storm's damage was estimated to be $86.4 million.

Three months after the storm, 75% of the population was receiving food from relief workers, and over 150,000 relied upon aid for half of their food.

The crop in the ground was wiped out in most areas flooded by the storm surge; in fact, the paddies and the fields where crops had been planted were often unrecognisable. Crop losses elsewhere, though not total, were severe. Rice crops were wiped out, even in areas where the saltwater surge had not penetrated, since rice at this stage of the harvest was extremely vulnerable to high winds. Other crops, such as sugarcane and banana, had been heavily damaged. Many nut trees, such as cocoanuts, did manage to survive the storm, but the nuts themselves had been blown away, costing the farmers much of a year's harvest.

Damage to crops and property, however, paled in comparison to the human harvest extracted by the storm.

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We (Bangladeshi) have been very resilient despite the problems we've faced. We have always risen and have never been defeated.

We will fight until we get to where we want to be.

Fazle Hasan Abed, founder of BRAC and relief & rehabilitation organisation HELP

But it is important to realise that disasters not only cause death and injuries with their initial strike. In their aftermath, they continue to threaten lives by increasing the risk of disease, starvation, malnutrition, reducing food security and access to basic services, and endangering water safety. The exact death toll will never be known. The death figure was put at 500,000 but it could be more - making Bangladesh's 1970 Bhola cyclone the fourth worst natural disaster in recorded history and the world's most deadly tropical cyclone.

Marine life, essential part of Bengali food intake, completely destroyed

A total of 38,000 marine and 77,000 inland fishermen were affected by the cyclone. Approximately 9,000 marine fishing boats were lost, and over 53,000 onshore fishermen operating in the cyclone affected region lost their lives. An unknown number of fishing vessels were washed out to sea and several seagoing vessels in the ports of Chittagong and Mongla were reported damaged. In total, approximately 65% of the fishing capacity of the coastal region was destroyed by the storm, in a region where about 80% of the protein consumed comes from fish.

Fish were the major source of protein for the local inhabitants, and the loss of nearly two-thirds of the fishing industry was a severe blow to this impoverished region. Agricultural production sustained similar damage with the loss of £40 million worth of crops and the deaths of 280,000 cattle.

The true death toll will never be known; many bodies were washed out to sea or buried in the delta. It is likely that a large number of migrant workers were not included in the fatality lists.

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