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Sunday, April 29, 2012
Ctg Edition

'91 cyclone still haunts survivors

More than two decades ago, on this very day in 1991, Gorky, a tropical cyclone with wind speed of 160 miles per hour struck the coastal areas of southern Bangladesh.

The category 5 hurricane claimed at least 1,38,000 lives, left about 10 million people homeless and damaged properties of about $1.5 billion, making it one of the world's major natural disasters in the last century.

The storm surge rose to unusual height of more than six metres above the mean sea level, which devastated the offshore islands and the mainland coast.

Although the cyclone struck the whole coastal area of the country, Chittagong was the worst affected area with majority of deaths and property damage. Volunteers buried a total of 75,528 bodies, most of them in mass graves, while many others were swept into the sea.

Huge damage was caused to the physical infrastructure of the port of Chittagong and adjoining industrial area. Shaktiman, a 100-ton crane at the port, was uprooted and smashed on the Karnaphuli River Bridge breaking the bridge into two parts. A number of boats and small ships were also heavily damaged.

Bases of Bangladesh Navy and Bangladesh Air Force in Chittagong were badly damaged.

A graveyard at Bot Tola of Maizpara village in Patenga upazila is such a mass graveyard in Chittagong. A tombstone epitaph at the graveyard reads, "47 people are buried here who died in 1991 cyclone".

Forty-one-year-old Rabeya Begum will never forget the horror of the moment when the hurricane Gorky hit her offshore village Shahid Ghati of Maizpara that night. Her four brothers and three sisters who died that night are buried in that grave.

Rabeya, who was 20 back then, can clearly remember the nightmarish scenes of that night. She could do nothing but witness neighbours being washed away into the sea by the storm surge. Houses collapsed one after another. Cattle were swept away by the strong currents and winds, while panicked people were running to find shelter.

Rabeya said some 22 families used to live in different houses in a compound of the village. Of them 14 families left the compound seeking shelter after hearing warning signal number 10 around 10:00pm.

Along with about 50 members of the remaining eight families, she took shelter in the attic like space of a tin-shed house as it was a comparatively stronger roof among the houses in the compound.

"The floor of the attic was made of bamboo, covered with cardboard," she recalled.

As water kept rising the cardboards and bamboos got wet causing the attic floor to collapse drowning 47 people, she said.

But Rabeya and two others could luckily escape from death by holding on to a guava tree.

"After battling for hours with the storm and water surge, finally I felt that the storm was over," said Rabeya.

But more shock was waiting for her on the next morning, as she found corpses including bodies of her siblings piled up for burial at the graveyard.

Not only Rabeya -- Nur Mohammed, Islam Chowkider, Akter, Jafar and Ayesha also lost their family members who took shelter in that attic that night.

Nur Mohammed lost five members of his family, Islam Chowkider also lost five family members, Akter lost his parents and a brother, Jafar lost four family members, and Ayesha lost five. The bodies of their relatives were buried in the mass grave.

With the help of eight volunteers, Badiul Alam, who is now 50, buried the corpses. Standing in front of the graveyard recently he said, "We piled up the 47 corpses and buried them in a grave."

"We found corpses left scattered even after a week of the cyclone in the area," he said adding that there are many other graves of unidentified corpses in the locality.

Cyclone is not a new phenomenon in Chittagong region. In his book 'Ain-E-Akbari', Abul Fazal mentioned about cyclones which struck the region in the 16th century.

Several cyclones struck this land in 1775, 1897, 1960, 1963, 1970 and 1985.

On November 12, 1970 the country experienced a deadly cyclone that claimed about five lakh lives in the country's coastal region from Sandwip to Patuakhali.

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