After Steep Losses, Bangladesh Learns the Lessons of Disaster
May. 04, 1994
DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) _ Bangladesh, well versed in calamity, is finally learning some lessons.
Since 130,000 people died in a cyclone three years ago, the government and relief agencies have pumped millions of dollars into disaster defenses.
This time, when another cyclone bearing winds in excess of 100 mph battered the same southeastern coast, there were nowhere near that number of casualties.
''We have still not achieved a full-proof protection network,'' said Abdur Rahim, an official of the Relief Ministry, ''but we have progressed a lot.''
The warm Bay of Bengal is a breeding ground for cyclones that strike this overcrowded country like a recurring nightmare. People here have been keeping records on disasters since 1797, when a storm flattened the port of Chittagong.
Nearly a half-million people died in a 1970 cyclone. In all, 61 major disasters have afflicted this area in the last 197 years.
Many of the 7 million people populating the islands and coastline live in thatched homes that can be blown away by a strong breeze.
With the help of foreign aid since 1991, the number of concrete storm shelters on the coast has tripled to 900, enough to shelter 1 million people. The government says 3,000 shelters are needed to fully protect the millions in worst danger of cyclones.
Evacuation procedures have been improved, with more motorboats and launches recruited to move people to the shelters. Mainland roads have been upgraded.
New high-frequency radios link relief offices in Dhaka, the capital, to 100 outposts in the southern and southeastern areas, many of them remote.
''There could have been many deaths had we not taken proper precautionary measures,'' said Golam Rabbani, a Red Crescent official in southern Chittagong city.
Much of the credit goes to a government-controlled Disaster Preparedness program that enlists volunteers from Western voluntary aid agencies and the Red Crescent Society, the local equivalent of Red Cross.
''Our boys have done a wonderful job,'' said Syed Shahidul Huq Jamal, chairman of the Red Crescent, speaking of the 27,000 volunteers who helped with the evacuation.
The volunteers - 7,000 more than in 1991 - were equipped with loudspeakers, radio sets, speed boats, push carts and rickshaws to evacuate residents.
The evacuation started early Monday, 18 hours before the cyclone hit.
Even the Meteorological Department has done better. Since the storm was spotted Friday near the Andaman Islands, regular round-the-clock bulletins were issued on its progress on state radio, which usually closes at 11:30 p.m.
In 1991, many people failed to heed the evacuation warnings because of several false alarms. Squatters on the outlying islands are particularly loath to leave them unprotected.