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Hurling out of the Bay of Bengal, the storms tear into low-lying coastal communities where homes made of bamboo, thatch, and light metal sheets stand little chance against tidal surges and winds that can rage at more than 160 miles per hour.
"When a cyclone hits, it means you can lose everything," said Khan, Oxfam America's humanitarian response officer in East Asia. "Rich and poor alike."
The entire coastal zone is prone to violent storms and tropical cyclones between April and May—before the monsoon season starts—and again in October and November, when the monsoon has ended. Khan estimates that cyclones have killed nearly one million Bangladeshis since 1820. In 1970, one event alone took about half those lives. With a storm surge topping 30 feet, that November 12th cyclone killed 500,000 people and more than one million heads of cattle.
The disaster pushed the United Nations to ask the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to develop an early warning system for the country, said Khan. The result was the establishment of the Cyclone Preparedness Program, a community-based volunteer organization that provides early warning to people, and then helps with relief work and first aid after the storms hit.
But 21 years after the deadliest storm in Bangladesh's history, another devastating cyclone struck the country in late April, 1991, killing 138,000 people. It was at that point, said Khan, that Bangladesh began to look seriously at the steps it could take to help people prepare for the inevitable.
At the urging of aid groups and the donor community, the government of Bangladesh began to shift its emergency response programs to focus more heavily on preparedness. When Cyclone Sidr struck a few weeks ago in mid-November, evacuation planning, early warning systems, and the establishment of cyclone shelters helped to save about 100,000 lives.
Nevertheless, the physical devastation left in the storm's wake was stunning: Sidr damaged or destroyed 1.4 million homes, hurt more than two million acres of crops, and wiped out more than four million trees. What all of that means is that people have nowhere to live, many of them have lost their means for making a living, and food reserves have been wiped out.
While aid groups like Oxfam are responding with programs to provide clean water and sanitation to prevent the spread of waterborne disease and to supplement food in the months ahead, there is a great deal more that can be done to help people stay safe—and recover quickly—from storms like these.
Khan points to the need for more research on how to build low-cost but cyclone-tolerant housing in coastal areas. And then work needs to be done on developing programs with commercial banks to finance the construction of those homes. Additionally, aid groups need to help communities explore alternative ways for people to earn their livings, so that storms like Sidr don't wipe out all their options.
For these disaster risk reduction programs to be successful, added Khan, they need to be based at the community level—where local people will know best what the particular dangers are and what steps are needed to grapple with them. But there is an international component to this too: Donors need to support the preparedness work that local governments and aid groups are undertaking. It's a smart investment. Typically, each dollar spent on reducing a community's risk to disaster is worth about $8 in emergency relief.