On April 30, 1991, 28 years ago, a devastating cyclone of the highest magnitude hit the coastal belt of Chattogram district of southeastern Bangladesh and made a landfall around the time of high tide, which was 18ft above normal. The cyclone produced a 20ft storm surge that inundated the coastline. The storm also brought winds of around 150mph which lashed a populated region of the coast for about 12 hours, as well as 12 offshore islands.
An estimated 138,000 people were killed by the cyclone. More than 20,000 people died in Kutubdia Upazila, an island off the coast near Chakaria, Cox’s Bazar, where 80–90 percent of homes were destroyed, and all livestock were killed. Some smaller offshore islands lost their entire populations. Around 25,000 people were killed in Chattogram, and 40,000 in Banshkhali. About 13.4 million people were affected. Around one million homes were destroyed, leaving 10 million people homeless. The storm surge swept away entire villages.
The impact was sudden and devastating in the loss of life and damage to the region’s infrastructure. The aftermath was equally as unprecedented; the damage to the roadways was so extensive that travel in and around Chattogram and its coastal areas was near impossible. The repercussions of this cyclone created a nightmare for the local and national government agencies.
The extent of damage was far too much for the local government to manage without national assistance. Trees had fallen across roads, power lines were out of order, seaports and the airport were not operational, and many of the commercial and naval ships were damaged. The Bangladesh army was ordered to assist the civil authority and to help restore communication immediately. Residents of the region were mobilised to help increase manpower and assist the government agencies, the army and paramilitary forces. Many army officers were ordered to move to Chattogram to work under the command of the army’s 24 Infantry Division.
Despite this mobilisation of resources, the task at hand was overwhelming and the Bangladesh government quickly identified the need for immediate foreign support. To facilitate foreign aid, the then prime minister personally requested assistance from the United Nations secretary general and US president. The foreign embassies and high commissions also informed their respective countries about the grave situation in Bangladesh. The US ambassador in Bangladesh at that time, William B Milam, played an active role and started monitoring the progress of the response efforts. Then US President George HW Bush ordered the United States amphibious taskforce, consisting of 15 ships and 2,500 men (taskforces retreating from Iraq), to divert their route and move to Bay of Bengal to support disaster management and to provide relief to an estimated 1.7 million survivors in Bangladesh. Lieutenant General Henry Charles Stackpole was the Marine Corps taskforce commander for this mission. This was part of Operation Sea Angel, one of the largest military disaster relief efforts ever carried out, with the United Kingdom, China, India, Pakistan and Japan also participating. Operation Sea Angel began on May 10, 1991. The relief was to be delivered to the hard-hit coastal areas and low-lying islands in the Bay of Bengal by helicopter, boat and amphibious craft.
After the arrival of the US Marine Corps, the Bangladesh army headquarters mobilised to provide support to the taskforce in several ways—most importantly, by providing local guidance. The Bangladesh military provided a group of officers from the army, navy, and air force to provide guidance to the US taskforce on the ground.
At that time, I was serving in the army headquarters as a young major and immediately volunteered myself to work with the taskforce to help in the disaster relief activities. I had fought in the Bangladesh Liberation War and didn’t want to miss another opportunity to serve my nation. I was nominated as the representative of the Armed Forces Division and army headquarters to act as the liaison officer with the US taskforce to coordinate their work. I moved to Chattogram immediately and reported to the port where the first Bangladesh coordination headquarters was established which combined the forces of the Bangladesh civil and military operations.
The US coordination headquarters, led by Lt Gen Henry Stackpole, was in the same region and as such it allowed me to start attending their meetings regularly. I contributed many resolutions to the practical problems faced in the aftermath of the tornado and, after just a few days, I was asked by the taskforce commander to become a member of the planning team. Shortly after, I moved to the first floor of the US coordination headquarters and worked side by side with the US Marine Corps and naval officers in the daily planning of the operation. I had a unique opportunity to observe the fully established organisational structure of the relief efforts coordinated by the US. Every morning there would be a meeting with the local and national military authority to discuss the status of available resources, priority of work, and the load table for helicopters and ships. After 2-3 days, I became the controller of all the flights and movement from the port area. My role was to distribute loads and programme the shift of aircraft with two US taskforce officers, Col Bail, an engineer officer, and Capt (Navy) Anglyana.
As the relief efforts progressed, aid poured in from Europe, the Middle East and the US by air to Dhaka. The relief goods were controlled by Armed Forces Division (AFD) and the Prime Minister’s Relief Cell in Dhaka, and subsequently delivered to Chattogram.
The transportation of relief goods to the coastal areas increased in momentum as 12 US helicopters with aid and two British helicopters and one Japanese helicopter and US amphibious watercrafts deployed full-scale efforts to reach remote regions. The US Marine Corps installed water-processing plants in the coastal areas. Midway through this operation, there were plans for an air bridge which was established by the US army connecting all small Islands and coastal areas of Chattogram.
The remarkable feat of this relief effort was the harmonious collaboration amongst the helicopter pilots, Marine Corps soldiers and officers along with Bangladesh army officers and troops. The relief forces were so self-motivated that they tirelessly worked round the clock to help save the lives of the victims in the affected areas. Operation Sea Angel was unique in its multi-faceted coordination and planning efforts quickly became a model of successful collaboration in disaster relief.
The limitation was not resources as the commander of Operation Sea Angel, Lt Gen Henry Stackpole, stated in 1991 that the Bangladesh government had ample supplies stockpiled in preparation for disaster relief. The true challenge was the organisational structure in distributing these resources to isolated areas and islands that were cut off from the mainland. With the aid of Bangladeshi military and civilian agencies, non-governmental organisations, and military forces from the United States and other partner nations, relief supplies reached the most vulnerable populations in a timely and efficient manner. Additionally, organisations like the US Agency for International Development, Feed the Children, Unicef, Brac and countless others remained in Bangladesh to aid recovery long after the military departed.
In fact, the efficiency and synchronisation of civil-military cooperation during Operation Sea Angel were so groundbreaking that in 2011, William Milam, US ambassador to Bangladesh from 1990-1993, said, “The cooperative model we put together for Sea Angel is a model that the military and the civilian side of our government have been using ever since.”
The vulnerability of Bangladesh has also uniquely poised it to create a model for disaster response and preparedness as it has grown and progressed over time to successfully create an effective response system. Moreover, the country stands as a regional example of the exceptional progress that can be made by a new nation with time-tested civil-military relationships which stand ready to support the government whenever it is in need of assistance.
Col (rtd) Mohammed Abdus Salam, Bir Protik, was part of Operation Sea Angel.