As Hurricane Sandy barrels her way up the East Coast toward New York, I am reminded of the worst natural disaster from my childhood and one of the biggest catastrophes in recorded history.
In November 1970, the Bhola Cyclone smashed into East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and West Bengal (a province in northeastern India) and killed at least 500,000 people (although the true death toll will never be known). By comparison, Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf of Mexico coast in the southern U.S. killed less than 2,000 people in August 2005.
Although Bhola only reached the equivalent of a category 3 hurricane, the cyclone flooded onto densely populated, low-lying plains of the Ganges Delta and wiped out hundreds of villages overnight.
At one point, with winds reaching 115 miles per hour, the cyclone destroyed almost half the population of the coastal area of Tazumuddin, Upazila (present-day Bangladesh).
Bhola is widely regarded as the deadliest tropical cyclone in recorded history.
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The cyclone also played a part in leading to the independence of East Pakistan from its rulers in West Pakistan. The government of General Yahya Khan (based in Islamabad in the western segment of the former Pakistan) was widely assailed for its slow response at relief efforts by both the opposition Awami League in Dacca (in East Pakistan) and also by many foreign leaders.
The unrest in East Pakistan eventually led to a war of independence the following year and the creation of the new country of Bangladesh.
The humanitarian crisis that emerged as a result of the cyclone (combined with the deadly civil war the following year) also inspired ex-Beatle George Harrison to organize the famous "Concert for Bangladesh."
Cyclones are familiar to the people of Bangladesh and India -- they are accepted as a normal part of life. On average, the Bay of Bengal hosts five cyclones every year. Indeed, one-fifth of Bangladesh is submerged annually by flooding.
In 1970 -- with no Internet, nor even television for the impoverished population of East Pakistan -- there was no way to warn the people vulnerable to the storm's merciless wrath.
Meanwhile, Hurricane Sandy, dubbed Frankenstorm by the media, may eventually become the worst storm ever to hit the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. However, it is unlikely that it will cause the magnitude of casulaties that Bhola wrought on rural Bangladesh.