Fury of the Cyclone

May 06, 1991

The human misery of displaced Kurds overwhelms even relief efforts enjoying the logistical support of a mighty war machine. More than a million people in Ethiopia will run out of food within two weeks, according to a relief agency operating there. Yet these man-made or -exacerbated catastrophes pale in comparison to the dead (already 125,000) and homeless (ten million, give or take) from the fury of the cyclone that sent the Bay of Bengal surging up the river channels in eastern Bangladesh, submerging whole islands.

The storm hit last Tuesday. The worst damage was Friday as the rains flooded downstream. Now more wind and rain is expected. Bangladesh, with 110 million people and 17 helicopters, has an annual per capita income is $170. Yet the 20-foot waves that overwhelmed the low-lying Bay of Bengal region were not so high as the 41-foot crests of 1876, nor the death likely to match the 500,000 of 1970. But it came when the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, the Oxfams and Catholic Relief Services, not to mention the governments that normally mount relief efforts, were fully extended.

Some relief supplies were pre-positioned in the capital of Dhaka. The first planeloads of new supplies came in from Saudi Arabia. But distributing the blankets and matches and tents and water purification kits and food is something else. Roads are washed out. On the islands, people starve. India sent three helicopters. The United States and Japan pledged comparative pittances. Asians will look for more help from Japan, as no violation of its constitution is required.

The private relief agencies are stretched taut, in personnel and cash, by the Andean cholera epidemic and crises in Kurdistan, Iraq proper, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Angola, Liberia and Mozambique. What Bangladesh needs most urgently, only governments can provide. That is such means of distribution as helicopters and light planes.

Help for Bangladesh is help for democracy. Its military regimes were accused of inefficiency and corruption in past disasters. The army gave way before the torrent of the people last December, starting currents that saw Khaleda Zia elected and installed as prime minister on March 19.

That is not much time for the widow of a slain president to have learned the ropes. But Mrs. Khaleda responded to the crisis with vigor and clarity. The radio issued warnings before the storm hit. She is emphatic on what aid is needed where. Politicians, circling like birds of prey, watch to see if she can control local administration sufficiently to distribute aid effectively.

Meanwhile, the bodies wash up on shore, food is short, water is filthy and disease impends. Bangladesh needs all the emergency help in distribution that a distracted world can spare, and then some.

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