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Tornado Survivors Lament The Price of Their Prosperity

May 16, 1996

GOPALPUR, Bangladesh (AP) _ The two severed hands were still clinging to the bamboo stalks when soldiers found them.

At a 182-bed hospital, 2,000 patients are being treated, most of them forced to lie on the floor covered only with a simple white sheet because beds and other supplies are in such short supply.

And four days after one of Bangladesh’s deadliest tornadoes, rescuers are still finding female survivors afraid to come out in the open because their clothing was nearly shorn off by the 125-mph winds and flying debris.

The hands of the middle-aged man found Thursday had been cut off by some of the shards of tin roofs that flew through Gopalpur and many other villages like deadly missiles from Monday’s twister.

Officials say at least 550 people were killed, 34,000 injured and 500 left missing by the tornado, which struck 80 villages in Tangail district, known for its finely woven saris.

As the survivors continued to bury their dead, they mourned the prosperity that had allowed them to move up from the mud-and-straw houses that most people live in to ones with wood walls and tin roofs.

``Looking at the injuries of the wounded and the cause of deaths, we can safely say that about 70 percent of the casualties were caused by the tin roofs,″ said Mufafiz Mohammad, an army captain overlooking relief in Gopalpur, 95 miles north of Dhaka, the nation’s capital.

Tens of thousands of people were left homeless by the tornado. On Thursday, as they prepared to spend their fourth night in the open, the weather officials in Dhaka had some bad news.

The Bangladesh Meteorological Department warned of more rainstorms in the devastated northern districts. By evening, rain clouds were forming over Gopalpur, sending shock waves through the survivors.

Men and women were collecting twigs and wooden planks from their destroyed homes to make fires and boil rice in the open for dinner.

``If it rains, some of us will surely die. There are so many weak people among us,″ said Rashid Mia, a 35-year-old weaver.

Bangladesh, a nation of 128 million people, is among the world’s poorest countries. Seven of every 10 people cannot read or write. Four out of 10 do not have enough to eat each day.

But over the years there have been some success stories, especially in garment exports. More than half the country’s trade revenue comes from low-priced clothing that is exported.

That has brought money to the Tangail area, allowing many residents to build homes of wood and tin, a sign of status.

But on Thursday, village elders in Gopalpur were cursing the good fortune that increased the tornado’s misfortune.

``It may be a status symbol, but look what has happened,″ said one survivor, Korban Ali.

The pair of hands was discovered by an army rescue team during its search operation Thursday.

``It was a terrible sight,″ said Mohammad, the army captain. ``For some reason, the hands were still firmly clinging to the bamboo. We could not locate the body at first. Later, we were told that a handless body was found yesterday.″

As Mohammad’s team rummaged through the area looking for bodies or survivors, hundreds of women ran toward a narrow dirt road after spotting some relief supplies arriving on rickshaws.

After days of delays, local relief agencies were finally sending food and badly needed clothes.

``Some of our women are hiding and can’t come out because the tornado left them half naked,″ said a woman, screaming at a relief official and pleading for clothes.

Monday’s tornado was the worst to hit Bangladesh since 1969, when 922 people were killed and 16,000 injured in dozens of villages near Dhaka.

In 1991, an estimated 130,000 people died when a cyclone coming off the Bay of Bengal pounded the southern coast.

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