On August 29, 1991, a devastating cyclone hit the South Asian nation of Bangladesh, killing more than 135,000 people and causing more than $1.5 billion in damage. Although 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.
1991 Bangladesh Cyclone: August 29, 1991
Cyclone is the name given to hurricane-type storms that arise in the Indian Ocean, while typhoons are those that start in the Pacific Ocean and hurricanes are those found in the Atlantic. Cyclone 2B, as August 1991 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 in the Chittagong region on August 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 impoverished 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, an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 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, deciding to wait out the cyclone in their mud and straw huts. This proved disastrous when 150 mph 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.
1991 Bangladesh Cyclone: Casualties
It took several weeks to recover the bodies of the victims. Best estimates put the loss of life at between 135,000 to 145,000 people. As many as 10 million people, by some accounts, were left homeless 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.
Since 1991, the warning and shelter systems in Bangladesh have improved; a powerful cyclone there in 1997 took a far lesser toll.