On this day in 1991, a devastating cyclone hits Bangladesh, killing more than 135,000 people. Even though there had been ample warning of the coming storm and shelter provisions had been built in the aftermath of a deadly 1970 storm, this disaster was one of the worst of the 20th century.
“Cyclone” is the name given to hurricane-type storms that arise in the Indian Ocean. “Typhoons” are those that start in the Pacific Ocean and “hurricanes” are those found in the Atlantic. Cyclone 2B, as this storm was known, had been tracked for a week as it made its way north through the Bay of Bengal. It slammed into the southeastern coast of Bangladesh on April 29.
The southeastern region of Bangladesh is a river delta where the Ganges and other rivers flow into the Indian Ocean. It is particularly prone to floods and is also in the path of many cyclones. Despite the dangers, the poor people of the region continue to live in the area because of its fertile soil. Many thousands of people also inhabit the small islands and exposed coast of the southeast.
In 1970, nearly half a million people lost their lives to a powerful cyclone, prompting locals to build some storm shelters. However, not enough people took advantage of these havens before the 1991 storm (approximately 100,000 sought shelter), deciding to wait out the cyclone in their mud and straw huts. This proved disastrous when 150 mile-per-hour winds caused a 20-foot surge of water across the region. Some islands were entirely swamped. Thousands of people were washed out to sea and drowned during the nine-hour storm.
It took several weeks to recover the bodies of the victims. Best estimates put the loss of life at between 135,000 and 145,000 people. One-and-a-half million homes were decimated by Cyclone 2B. Additionally, a million head of cattle were lost. Because of this, and the heavy loss of crops, starvation posed a critical danger to the survivors.
Seven of the nine most deadly cyclones or hurricanes of the 20th century took place in Bangladesh. The warning and shelter systems have improved since 1991; a large cyclone in 1997 took a far lesser toll.