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Glimpsing Cyclone Bhola

  • Published at 05:59 pm July 30th, 2019
Climate Tribune_July_Pg 11-14 (3)
A ship lies half-submerged after Cyclone Bhola Photos: Dr Alfred Sommer

Nearly five decades on, one of Bangladesh’s worst natural disasters remains under researched

As a historian studying grassroots activism during the Liberation War, a cyclone was not something that I expected to stumble upon in the field. Cyclonic storms in the Bay of Bengal are famous and, as one Singaporean newspaper wrote in 1924, “for sheer, confused danger there is nothing equal to the tumultuous seas raised by a cyclone in the Bay.” (Amrith, 2013) Last year, while conducting research in the USA and Bangladesh, I stumbled upon one of these cyclones. The following article offers a small glimpse of a powerful story of humanitarianism in the aftermath of Cyclone Bhola, which struck the Southern coast of Bangladesh in 1970. It is not drawn from structured interviews or participant observations, but rather from a different kind of fieldwork – that of a researcher traversing the shifting surfaces of memory while trying to understand the legacy of what happened in Bhola nearly half a century ago.


In the 1960s, a group of American doctors and their families came to Dhaka to work at the Pakistan SEATO Cholera Research Laboratory (CRL, today known as ICDDR,B). While living there, they formed close, often lifelong friendships with Bengalis of all backgrounds. By the end of the decade, the CRL had conducted groundbreaking research into, amongst other things, Oral Rehydration Therapy for cholera, which the UN has credited with saving millions of lives around the world ever since (Nalin and Cash, 2018).

On the night that Cyclone Bhola made landfall in November 1970, there was a torrential downpour in Dhaka. Watching from a friend’s veranda, Alfred Sommer, a young epidemiologist at the CRL, recalled his surprise: “there were whitecaps on Gulshan Lake, how could that happen?” “The news got out very slow because there was no communication,” remembered Dr Henry Mosley, and firm information about the storm took days to reach Dhaka. Little by little, the CRL group gleaned that the storm had caused extreme damage and killed a horrifying number of people. Cyclone Bhola Track and Storm Surge Heights (Ali and Choudhury, 2014)

The efforts of a committed group of women formed the nucleus of what would become a months-long project to assist cyclone victims. In her moving memoir, Catalyst, Cornelia “Candy” Rohde, whose husband Jon worked at the CRL, paints a vivid picture of the moment she and her close Bengali friends, Runi and Putul, decided to do something to aid the survivors:

"Our tea grows cold as we stare at the headline about the death and destruction caused by the cyclone. I blurt out, ‘Let's do something, anything that helps.’ These few words are like pebbles. Once cast, they cause ripples that expand and expand in ever-increasing circles; ripples that touch many lives and leave indelible memories" (Rohde, 2013).

Along with Martha Chen and Peggy Curlin, two other Americans also associated with the CRL, and key Bengali allies including a young Fazle Hasan Abed, the group decided to gather whatever supplies they could and establish a private humanitarian relief organisation. One week after the cyclone struck, the first supplies were distributed and the group soon decided to base their efforts in Hatiya, calling themselves the Hatiya Emergency Life Project (HELP).

Heading in search of a distant char named Manpura on one of the group’s early relief missions, Jon Rohde later wrote:

"I'd been assured Manpura was off there somewhere—almost twenty miles long and two wide, it couldn't have disappeared entirely in one night. The smell came first, then the tops of coconut palms, floating on tiny stalks above the placid bay—at last the low mud bank with its horrendous burden of decaying bodies…I scrambled up the slippery bank, nearly retching, and stood on a dirt mound that only last week had been a home. There before me was a beautiful, golden, flattened and utterly desolate land" (Rohde, 2013).

Alfred Sommer, too, recalled his feelings of shock upon first seeing the island: “we didn't know where we were going…and then we got off…I'll never forget...the beach was…just filled with dead human bodies [and] dead cattle…that'd been washed back onto Manpura.”

The horror of this landscape was matched only by the group’s determination to help the traumatised survivors and they quickly set to work distributing supplies. Dr Richard Guerrant, who medically examined survivors, later wrote in his diary that many of them were understandably shaken but relatively healthy, besides one common symptom:

"I ended up seeing a number of people that had deep gouges in the inner parts of their thighs and their arms. I finally asked this poor old…guy who had this really deep gash wound that didn't look good…where on earth this “Cyclone Syndrome”had happened. He pointed to a tall palm tree. He said, ‘that tree is my life.’ It was only then that I realized that however many feet or meters of water literally made the top of those trees the only thing to hold onto for life."

In the weeks and months following the cyclone, HELP’s volunteers worked tirelessly to arrange supplies from Dhaka, set up an emergency food and clothing distribution programs, provide medical assistance, and rehabilitate the survivors. Alongside these efforts, Henry Mosley and Alfred Sommer conducted epidemiological surveys of the cyclone-affected areas for US officials to guide humanitarian relief efforts, estimating that around 224,000 people had been killed (Sommer and Mosley, 1972).

The months that followed the cyclone, however, were perhaps the most momentous in Bangladeshi history: the 1970 elections which delivered a resounding victory to the Awami League, the tense negotiations with Yahya Khan’s military regime, and the eventual crackdown that sparked the Liberation War. Although the conflict prematurely curtailed long-term rehabilitation programs, HELP’s staff (many of whom were evacuated with other foreigners from Dhaka in April), remained concerned for the fate of the cyclone survivors and worried about the prospect of a famine. From a distance as activists, they supported Bangladesh’s liberation struggle with the same energy that had characterised their humanitarian relief efforts. Many returned to Bangladesh after the war as doctors, development practitioners, and researchers, and they are still close with friends in the country that they grew to love five decades ago.

Remembering Cyclone Bhola

For history students, research often comes down to engaging with documents written by people who have long since passed away. Rather than the soft kada of the Sundarbans or the bustling energy of an NGO’s office in Baridhara, our field usually consists of a reading room with air conditioning, a finding aid, and a tall stack of papers. The living history that inheres in people’s memories is rarely accessible to us and, when it is, we are not trained in how to deal with it. But my experiences engaging with such living histories in Bangladesh have taught me that it is often the stories drawn from speaking with ordinary people which make the significance of an otherwise obscure aspect of the past much clearer.

Nearly half a century after it made landfall, the destruction wrought by Cyclone Bhola in 1970 has long since passed. Yet, although it caused one of the highest ever recorded storm surges, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Visits the Cyclone-Affected Areasimpacted nearly 5 million people, and killed anywhere from 200,000-500,000 (estimates vary) across Southern Bangladesh, this cyclone is not as well researched as its recent counterparts Sidr and Aila (Ali and Choudhury, 2014). Certainly, the English-language scholarship about what occurred in 1970 seems limited to either the political or meteorological significances of the cyclone. Yet as the title of Cornelia Rohde’s book, Catalyst, suggests, it also engaged a wide range of relief groups, spurred substantial humanitarian activity, and underpinned the motives of a key set of pro-Bangladesh activists in the USA and UK in 1971.

As the 50th anniversary of the cyclone approaches, the need for research to unearth the presently understudied aspects of its history remains strong. Amidst other commemorations for Bangabandhu’s 100th birthday and the 50th anniversary of independence, however, such research may be sidelined in favour of nationalistic scholarship that emphasises the event’s significance on the pathway to independence. While commendable, this would also be a great shame because it would leave a fuller appreciation of the cyclone absent from the historical record. Like the Liberation War itself, the living history of Cyclone Bhola is still with us and researchers interested in understanding the nature of environmental disasters in Bangladesh must act to engage with and understand it.

Sam Jaffe completed a master’s degree in international history at Columbia University and the London School of Economics. His research examined grassroots activism in the USA during Bangladesh’s Liberation War. He can be contacted at: [email protected]