Refugees Magazine Issue 97 (NGOs and UNHCR) - Cyclone alert!

Refugees Magazine, 1 September 1994

Probably, somewhere, an editor used the headline: "Cyclone Hits Bangladesh: Not Many Killed."

In fact, many died almost 200 Bangladeshis and Myanmar refugees on land, perhaps over 300 Myanmar and Thai fishermen at sea. However, considering the toll of the May 2 cyclone against the 138,000 killed in 1991, the difference was worth reporting.

But the number of deaths is immaterial: each death is pitiful, and nature's wanton destruction was cruel and arbitrary. Flying corrugated iron and debris, and falling trees, claimed many lives, and devastated more.

In the refugee camps housing almost 200,000 so-called "Rohingyas," there was a high proportion of deaths through dismemberment. In one camp, Kutupalong, which had been considered relatively safe, a tall tree fell on a densely populated shed area, killing 13. In that camp, some refugee families did not have enough cloth to adequately shroud the deceased; others were so desperate for shelter that they made makeshift huts up against the fallen trunk of the tree itself.

But the toll among refugees could have been much worse. The fact that it wasn't is due at least in part to the planning, coordination and hard work of various non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the government and UNHCR. The cyclone affected all of the 18 refugee camps which are supported by six international and two domestic NGOs. With uncanny accuracy it slammed against the seacoast, battering all the camps, which lie only a few kilometres from the Bay of Bengal.

Despite reported wind speeds of up to 250 kph when the cyclone made its landfall, the tidal surge which killed so many three years ago was not as severe. Thankfully, this cyclone hit against the tide, not with it. Moreover, the intensive cyclone shelter building programme undertaken by many NGOs in the Cox's Bazar district after 1991 undoubtedly also saved many lives. The project is testimony to the coordination and teamwork between UNHCR and the NGOs working in Bangladesh, including MSF-France, MSF-Holland, Oxfam, Save the Children Fund-UK, World Concern, Terre des Hommes-Netherlands, Concern (Bangladesh), and Gonoshasthaya Kendra (Bangladesh).

But the refugee camps, built as temporary structures two years ago, were always bound to suffer. Their light, makeshift construction, corrugated iron roofs and exposed position on the hills of Cox's Bazar, put them at the mercy of this cruelest of natural phenomena. Almost every shed was damaged, power and water services were interrupted, roads were made inaccessible and food and other perishable relief items drenched.

The first response from the UNHCR Sub-Office at Cox's Bazar and its partner NGOs was planning. A cyclone preparedness plan had been developed over two years earlier. Emergency kits, including medicines, generators and other essential items were pre-positioned close to the refugee centres, and teams went to ride out the storm in each camp area.

Communications gear, provisions, shelter and transport were all arranged, with particular attention paid to the "preservation of management assets" disaster jargon for putting everyone and everything in a safe place.

We were lucky that we had sufficient advance warning of the cyclone. On the morning of Sunday 1 May, the authorities hoisted the Signal 4 cyclone warning, and within two hours teams were on their way to the camps.

Once there, the teams advised local officials to take necessary precautions, and assisted wherever possible. In the town of Cox's Bazar, relief items were despatched, administrative arrangements were made for relocation of equipment, and a temporary radio installation was established to be shared with the Bangladesh relief department responsible for the refugees.

That evening the skies were calm. The following morning was overcast but still. A Signal 9 warning was raised at 9 a.m., and according to predetermined procedures, all staff were ordered to go to safe positions. This then became the most difficult period. We were trapped, unable to move, simply awaiting events for some seven hours until the cyclonic winds and rain began. It was only after another two to three hours that the effects were felt.

In the darkness, the wind howled. The noise of tearing and wrenching, stray screams and spray managed to penetrate every corner of our accommodation. By lamplight, in five different locations, staff members did what they could to stay calm amid the chaos outside. They played cards, talked and sang through the night. Some tried to sleep. Others were unable to sit still, responding to uncontrollable adrenaline surges like frustrated children on a rainy day.

By midnight, the wind and rain had subsided. Desperate for information, we listened to the short-wave radio which could only tell us, at half-hour intervals, that a cyclone had hit Cox's Bazar, but no reports of damage had been received. The teams in the south at Teknaf had been virtually immobilized; for them, progress north was only possible on foot.

But in the central coast and further north we were able to set out before 2 a.m., negotiating fallen trees and litter on the road, gradually beating a path to all the camps, cutting our way through fallen teak and rubber plantations.

By 3 a.m., four camps had been contacted. As dawn broke, the fury of the storm became evident: many maturing teak trees had fallen, or snapped in the middle like matchsticks. No further contact could be made with other camps until 7 a.m., when an advance party on foot was able to reach five camps in the central region.

Although the danger was still officially Signal 9, it was clear that the storm had passed. As we approached each camp, amidst the appalling debris of bamboo, thatch and corrugated iron, an intense hubbub of human activity was the most reassuring sound imaginable.

The refugees themselves were establishing makeshift shelters everywhere, restoring order to their lives, reconnecting their existence. We needed this reminder that refugees are as resourceful and capable as any other group of humans, and their hopefulness and cheerfulness as they set about this task brought restoring energy.

By midday, all camps had been contacted, every immediate need had been identified, and food was already on its way.

The camps were lucky that water facilities remained largely unaffected. Shelter and food were tended to and medical teams were working in each camp. Severe cases were transferred to local hospitals. The only remaining task to be initiated was the re-establishment of sanitation facilities.

In the days that followed, the local authorities were able to clear the roads, emergency food was delivered until regular distributions could be resumed, sanitation and water were normalized, and all medical cases were under treatment. After five days, there was no longer any need to refer to an emergency; the slower and more deliberate process of reconstruction could start. The surrounding Bangladeshi population was also severely affected, and UNHCR decided to provide an amount equal to 10 percent of the refugee relief to these people.

Mopping up was an organizational nightmare for all concerned, but in the end the relief effort was as well-conceived and executed as any ever undertaken in Bangladesh.

George Lombard