An immense tidal wave and storm surge caused by a powerful cyclone kills over 200,000 people in East Pakistan, now known as Bangladesh, on this day in 1970. The delta area where the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers flow into the Bay of Bengal is particularly vulnerable to this type of storm. In fact, this was at least the third disaster in the region to kill 200,000 people.
The storm began on November 10, 1,000 miles south of East Pakistan in the Indian Ocean. As the storm approached land late on the night of November 12, wind speeds varied from 75 to 100 miles per hour. These speeds are significantly slower than hurricane winds, but the river delta area in Bangladesh is shaped in such a way that the waves produced by cyclones are funneled toward land and significantly concentrated.
Just after midnight, the storm surge waves--amplified by the fact that it was high tide--reached 30 feet and swept over the low-lying land and small islands where most of the population resided. The storm struck at harvest time, meaning that there were many migrant workers in the area as well. It is estimated that 1,300 people were living in the region per square mile and there was very little in the way of a transportation network that would allow for mass evacuations. Even worse, many of the people in the area that evening had no warning whatsoever about the approaching storm. When the tidal wave and storm surges hit, thousands were swept away from their homes in an instant.
The disaster was so severe that only rough estimates of the death toll are available. Some believe it is possible that as many as 500,000 to 1 million people perished. Disease and hunger were rampant throughout the region in the weeks following the storm, as the government was not able to handle the scale of the needed relief efforts. Nearly 1 million people were left homeless, half a million livestock were killed and millions of acres of rice fields were destroyed.
In the aftermath of this disaster, George Harrison organized the Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden in New York City, the first-ever rock concert held to raise money for disaster relief.
In 1737, a cyclone killed an estimated 300,000 people in the same area. In 1991, at least 200,000 more people were killed in a similar storm.