Cyclones past and present | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, November 22, 2007 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, November 22, 2007

Cyclones past and present

Photo: AFP

I have been living in Dhaka for the last forty six years. During this period I have experienced various natural calamities afflicting the capital. Cyclonic weather was not uncommon in the city, and we were not much concerned about it. The magnitude and the intensity with which it bludgeoned the city in the late evening of November 15th was unprecedented. The sound and fury was unnerving. It was as if a monster had been unleashed. I live in a tin roofed villa. Though it was a decorative roof, I was alarmed that my house would be badly mauled by the devastating cyclone that was raging through.
The appalling spectre of 1958 cyclone in Noakhali with all its ferocity haunted me. I was a student of class eight when, in October '58, the cyclone and tidal bore swept over Noakhali and adjacent districts killing hundreds of inhabitants in the low lying coastal areas. There was hardly any building in Noakhali town, and dwelling houses were built with tin and thatched roofs. These were naturally vulnerable to cyclonic weather. Each family had three or four houses. My elder brother and I used to sleep in the out-house, a part of which was used for receiving the clients of my father who was a lawyer.
The cyclone started lashing at around 11PM in the evening; the house was collapsing. We were horrified as we lost contact with other members of the family. I tried to go out of the house to reach them but I could not proceed much as tin sheets were flying all over the place. Then I covered myself with a quilt and went out of the house. Soon afterwards I was flung a long distance. Thanks to Allah, I was not hurt. I came back to my place and stayed there. Our houses were badly damaged, somehow we were saved. One of my friends lost his mother. There was a huge loss of life and property. It took weeks to know the extent of damage because of extremely poor communication links.
The cyclone of November 15 left scars in the city itself. Except for the vegetable garden my house was not markedly damaged. The worst suffering was from the electricity failure. The blackout started from midnight and continued for more than twenty four hours. In the morning we came to know that there had been a grid failure and the black out was all pervasive throughout the country. The complaint centre, nor even the power apparatchiks, could say when the power supply would resume. We were left high and dry with the persistent problems of power failure. We had to rely on radios for information as the televisions were not working. Movement was restricted as the gas stations could not operate without electricity. City dwellers, so far we remember, had not faced a difficult situation like this for such a long duration.
Our suffering was dwarfed as the news of the devastation in the coastal districts started reaching the city. The magnitude seemed alarming. Despite early warning, the loss of life crossed three thousand; it is apprehended that the figure may cross five thousand or more. Loss of property and crop is wide spread; it may take a few weeks to arrive at a reliable estimate.
We are, to start with, apoplectic with shock and sorrow at the loss of life and property of this magnitude. We cannot at the same time afford to remain inert in the circumstances; we have to act and act very speedily, cautiously and concertedly at the same time. Topmost priority has to be on coordination of work. I consider my experience as the Zonal Relief Officer in Bhola in the wake of 1970's cyclone as very relevant. At that time the communication network was extremely weak, it took about half a day to reach Bhola from Barisal, and more than 24 hours from Khulna, the Divisional Headquarter. Telephone link was disrupted, and we had to depend on wireless communication. Mobile phone, satellite TV, developed ferry links were not available.
Local resources at the disposal of the Sub-divisional Officer (SDO) were scanty, and support from the central or the provincial government was negligible in the beginning. The SDO found it too difficult to address such a colossal problem all by himself. It took a few days before tangible support from district, division and the provincial capital, Dhaka, started pouring in. The criminal indifference or negligence of the central government exacerbated the situation. The president of the country came to East Pakistan after long twelve days. He went to Bhola, visited my camp and gave me some money to distribute among the affected people. He did not get down from the vehicle, in fact he appeared to be drunk.
It was Mr. Mokammel Huque, a senior officer hailing from Bhola, who took up the cudgel and set up an organisation with the support of the divisional commissioner and the district magistrate. Things started moving. Our first job was to bury hundreds of dead bodies floating in the river and the estuaries, and to provide immediate succour to the distressed who had hardly anything to live on. It took about two weeks to set the things moving and complete the burial of the dead bodies. Incidentally, I have seen in daily papers that after the Orissa cyclone in late nineties dead bodies were found in the paddy fields two weeks after the cyclone. Reaching the remotest area after the cyclone and tidal waves is indeed a difficult task.
Thanks to modern communication systems and improved organisational structure we do not face an impossible situation at the moment. We have collected information from the remote areas. The road links are restored, river links are being used as far as possible. Food and survival aid started reaching the affected areas almost immediately after the cyclone. Loss of life is regretted, though compared to the cyclones of '70 or '91 the figure is much smaller, not even 4% of earlier figures according to latest estimate. Relief materials and financial support from the international community are pouring in, so we do not apprehend any shortage of relief materials to sustain the programs. The affected people are expected to receive adequate relief within a short time.
The greatest succor for the affected people is to see the topmost people of the country -- the VVIPs and VIPs -- with them immediately after the disaster. They feel assured that the government and the leaders care for them, so something good will happen. In that respect the president and the chief advisor responded very promptly. The chief advisor visited the affected areas the very next day along with the chief of staff; the president went the next day.
Since then, the CA has been on peregrination to the coastal area almost every day. His address to the nation over radio and television was timely, succinct and reassuring. The advisors are also regularly visiting the affected areas. The relief materials they are carrying with them may be a smidgen, but their empathy with the marooned people helps heal their wounds hugely. We are sure that the local officials are working round the clock to mitigate the suffering of the people with whatever resources they have with them. Participation of the local leaders, if they are available in the area, would be an added boost to their morale.
The loss of human life is irreparable, it cannot be recouped; nor can we really console their near and dear ones. Material loss can, however, be compensated at least partially, and the nation's efforts should be directed towards that. The districts which have been worst hit are not the vegetable belts or rice bowls of the country. The loss in terms of plants, crops and vegetables will not cripple the national economy. Generous support from the national government and the international community can bring the economy of the cyclone hit areas back on track. The following prescriptions may be useful in this respect:

  • VVIPs should continue their visits to affected areas on a regular basis to monitor relief and rehabilitation programs on the ground. This will also boost the morale of the marooned people and inspire them to help themselves. During their visits the VVIPs may underscore the need to include the local bodies and the community based organisations in the programs undertaken by the government and national level NGOs. Senior officers may be posted for at least two months in each of the worst affected districts and upazilas.
  • The affected areas need to be rigorously classified; the success of relief programs greatly depends on the correct classification. There will be tremendous pressure to include less affected areas in the top priority list of the government. Districts or places with negligible casualty figures must not be allowed to crowd the list of worst affected areas.
  • Administrative and financial discipline should be adhered to as far as possible, because usually the greatest casualty of any disaster is administrative discipline. The special interest groups will try to take undue advantage to realise their own agenda, undermining the spirit of national programs. In the absence of genuinely compelling needs, rules, regulations and time honoured practices should not be violated. The integrity of the system should be maintained as far as practicable.
  • Governmental work in ministries and organisations not directly related to disaster management must not be slowed down on the plea of the disaster. In Bangladesh, organisations have a tendency to suffer from "monomania." They would shy away from carrying on normal duties and pose to be absorbed in the spirit of disaster management, though they have hardly any thing to do with it. This has to be prevented through intensive monitoring. Normal work of the government should not be undermined, unless compelled by the exigency of the situations. Routine tasks may be accomplished if necessary by working extra hours; they must not be stashed under the carpet on erroneously cogent pleas.
  • To save government resources for use in rehabilitation programs, the Annual Development Program (ADP) may be subject to incisive review. A high powered pruning committee may be set up for this purpose immediately so that the money saved may be used for genuinely productive purposes, particularly for rehabilitation work by the government.

Dr. Saadat Hussain is former Cabinet Secretary and current Chairman, Public Services Commission.

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