Bangladesh: A True Story of History’s Deadliest Storm

When British partitioned India along religious lines in 1947, the mostly Muslim country of Pakistan was born—two disconnected wings on either side of the mostly Hindu India. In November 1970, just two weeks before Pakistan’s first attempt at a free and fair election, the tropical storm that would become the deadliest cyclone in human history churned northeast through the Bay of Bengal. The locus of political power lay in Islamabad, to the west; East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) was home to 60 percent of the population and was in the direct path of the storm. When the Great Bhola Cyclone made landfall, it didn’t only crash against a coastline, killing half a million people, it also destroyed a fragile political system. This is the story of the cyclone: its fallout and how those events brought together two Cold War superpowers who threatened to destroy the world.

6 mins read
Children on the island of Bhola wade through floodwater after a tropical cyclone and tidal wave hit the area on November 13, 1970, which killed an estimated 200,000 to half a million people, with at least 100,000 missing, in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), Bhola Island, East Pakistan, November 18, 1970. (Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images)

Following excerpts adapted from the authors’ latest book, The Vortex A True Story of History’s Deadliest Storm, an Unspeakable War, and Liberation, published by HarperCollins Publishers

White mist surged across the Mahajagmitra’s bridge and the ship’s aging frame creaked with each menacing gust. The man in charge, Captain Nesari, watched the pressure fall a bit more on his ship’s barometer and paced the length of the control room. With its holds crammed to capacity with jute fiber and steel, the ship rocked ominously as it inched toward the open sea.

Nesari and his ship were leaving the great Hooghly River, the westernmost finger of India’s Ganges delta and one of the world’s most troublesome waterways. The Hooghly meets the Bay of Bengal at a point about thirty miles south of Calcutta, where incalculable volumes of silt wash down from the Himalayas and form a fan of ever-shifting rivers, tributaries, and temporary islands. A freighter that alights on a sandbar here might never break free.

As if to prove the point, the rusty hulls of abandoned vessels dotted the seascape. Colossal silt deposits alter the map on an almost daily basis, which is why Nesari hired the expert river pilot R. K. Das from the Port of Calcutta to navigate this stretch of water. Das deftly guided the six-thousand-ton ship through the narrow channels as the wind began to pick up.

Nesari darted his eyes back and forth between the barometer and a stack of outdated maps as he tried to estimate the coming storm’s strength. The stakes were high. Waiting out the weather system would add at least a day to their two-week trip to Oman. It would mean that the company would have to pay another day’s worth of salaries to the crew of forty-eight seamen, deplete another day’s worth of fuel, and stretch their already narrow profit margins to the breaking point—all potentially fireable offenses for any captain who signed off on such a cost overrun.

Then again, pushing onward out of the delta would expose the ship to the full power of whatever weather system lay just over the horizon. The worst-case scenario was too terrifying to contemplate. So Nesari had a decision to make: Would he take the risk, or would he power down?

If it was just a squall, then the Mahajagmitra would be fine. But what if they were witnessing the edge of a cyclone? Cyclonic storms—called hurricanes in the Americas and typhoons in the Pacific Rim—are especially deadly in the Bay of Bengal. Here storms spin counterclockwise, which means that any ship leaving the Port of Calcutta would have to travel directly into the center of the storm’s power—facing potentially devastating wind and waves head-on. Once a ship turned southward, the wind would crash against the port side, which could capsize a vulnerable vessel.

Nesari thought of his family and then considered his first mate. David Machado wore the starched white uniform of the Indian Merchant Navy, complete with three gold stripes and a diamond on his epaulettes. Machado couldn’t help cracking into a smile when he thought no one was looking. Last week, he’d married the love of his life. After the ceremony in South India, the newlyweds flew to Calcutta together. Sailors like him didn’t always get to pick the location of their honeymoon, yet somehow he’d convinced his bride that a cruise to the Middle East would be a fine way to start their life together.

Machado’s wife stowed herself below deck, her heavy wedding jewelry tucked safely away in a trunk in their shared compartment. The crew knew the ancient Greek warning that women on board were bad luck. Ostensibly, this was because women caused distractions, but more superstitious sailors claimed that they also attracted misfortune and bad weather. Captain Nesari was glad that they lived in more civilized times.

It was November 11, 1970, yet despite thousands of years of seafaring, a sailor’s ability to predict the weather hadn’t improved much since the nineteenth century. The radio was the biggest breakthrough in the last hundred years and allowed mariners to speak with other ships who were closer to dangerous weather systems. A smart navigator could triangulate a storm’s center by matching other ships’ weather reports to his ship’s current position—a method that wasn’t so different from how truckers relayed traffic patterns to their colleagues over CB radios.

The catch was that the radio operator had to actually find another ship’s signal. As far as Nesari could tell, there wasn’t a single transmission coming from anywhere in the Bay of Bengal. This meant that if the Mahajagmitra proceeded onwards it would be the first to brave the swells. It would be their job to report back to other vessels contemplating the journey.

Barring radio contact, Nesari had only one other tool to understand the weather system: Buys Ballot’s law. In 1857, the Dutch meteorologist Charles Buys Ballot invented a method for determining the direction of a storm. He wrote that if a sailor in the Northern Hemisphere stood on deck with his back to the wind, he could use his senses like a human compass. The pressure would be low on his right and high on his left, which meant that his right hand would point to the center of the system—the most dangerous part. As long as Nesari could steer clear of that point, they’d avoid the most intense wind and waves. The ship and its crew would be safe, and they’d save valuable days at sea.

The problem was that Buys Ballot’s law was really more of a guideline than a law. It was about as accurate as navigating through crowded Calcutta streets using only the North Star as a guide, which is to say, it was not very accurate at all. Nevertheless, Nesari walked out onto the deck, turned his back to the growing gale, and guessed that the Mahajagmitra would make it safely through.

It was his call.

An hour later, the ship reached Gasper Light, a repeating signal tower that marked the last point on the river system before open water. Das recorded in his log that the ship was in fine sailing shape after he handed control back over to the captain. Das also noted that the waves were growing and the weather was “not at all good” but “not so bad as to make boating impossible.” With those mixed messages he left out any mention of whether he agreed with Nesari’s decision to push out into the bay. His job done, Das disembarked, then watched as the Mahajagmitra’s silhouette diminished in the distance, until it was just a dark speck on a sinister orange-green horizon.

The ship moved forward under Nesari’s confident hand. He’d worked on oceangoing vessels like this one for most of his career and knew every compartment, bolt, and line of rope on board, but this storm already felt different from any other he’d pushed through. The wheel pulled against his hand, and it became more and more difficult to keep his ship on course. First mate Machado tried to comfort his wife as the ship rocked back and forth on the waves. Perhaps he told her that this was a large ship and they would be fine.

The Mahajagmitra’s engines strained as the boat pitched through the churn. Though there was no way for Captain Nesari to know it, he was sailing directly into the center of a cyclone. The vortex cast a wide disk of clouds spanning almost the entirety of the Bay of Bengal, an expanse of water about the same size as Texas. The swirling storm gathered strength from warm waters and conjured winds that screamed across the sea at a hundred and forty miles an hour.

The system whirled around a perfectly still eye. Clouds spun like the hands of a clock turning backward, yet inside the eye, the winds fell to a whisper. Here, an impenetrable cloud wall touched the sky as it rotated slowly. This gyre fed on the power of the earth itself, dragging the ocean along its rotation so that the sea formed a gigantic whirlpool, pulling everything toward one ultimate point.

An hour after Das disembarked, a nearby ship named the Desh Alok picked up the dots and dashes of a distress call from the Mahajagmitra’s transmitter. The radio operator deciphered the line of Morse code inside his damp radio room:


Captain Nesari didn’t know it yet, but his ship had already crossed the point of no return—the storm’s event horizon. Its fate was sealed as if it were light entering into a black hole.

As water crashed against its gunwales and poured onto the deck, the Mahajagmitra had no way to find its bearings. The forty-eight-member crew secured every hatch and portal to the lower decks, in the hopes that a watertight ship might survive on luck alone after they lost control of the helm. Every eight seconds, the vessel pitched fifty degrees along its axis as it rode up the face of one wave and into the trough of another. Nesari would have tried to keep the bow facing directly into the threat of oncoming waves, but he couldn’t do anything when the water came from all directions at once.

Two hours out from Gasper Light, just after noon, the radio operator of the Majahagmitra sent out another message. This time, it was a request for bearings. They were lost. If two ships responded with their positions, the navigator could try to ascertain the ship’s place on a map by triangulating the signals. Yet any attempt would have been little more than an academic exercise.

By this time, the cyclone’s tendrils brushed against the sandy islands that make up the Ganges delta, testing the point where it would eventually meet land. Though the storm was moving northeast, the wind hit the coast from the south as the storm circulated.

One hour later, the Mahajagmitra sent out another distress call.

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Scott Carney

Scott Carney is an investigative journalist and anthropologist, as well as the author of the New York Times bestseller What Doesn’t Kill Us. He spent six years living in South Asia as a contributing editor for WIRED and writer for Mother Jones, NPR, Discover Magazine, Fast Company, Men’s Journal, and many other publications. His other books include The Red Market, The Enlightenment Trap and The Wedge. He is the founder of Foxtopus Ink, a Denver-based media company.

Jason Miklian

Jason Miklian, Ph.D., is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Development and Environment, University of Oslo. Miklian has published over 60 academic and policy works on issues of conflict and crisis, based on extensive fieldwork in Bangladesh, Colombia, India, and the Congo. He serves on the United Nations Expert Panel on Business and Human Rights, has won several awards for his academic publications, and serves as an expert resource for various government knowledge banks in the US, UK, EU and Norway. Miklian has also written for or been cited in an expert capacity by the New York Times, BBC, The Economist, Washington Post, France 24, The Guardian, The Hindu (India) and NPR.

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