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Forecaster Finds Solace in Preparations for Cyclone : Bangladesh: Terrible as it was, the toll could have been worse without the weather warnings and shelters.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The wind howled and lightning cracked from dark clouds as a sudden afternoon thunderstorm flooded streets and pelted pedestrians with torrential rain. Lights dimmed, then went out in much of the city.

Saluddin Ahmed Chowdhury only smiled. “It is nothing,” he said with a casual wave of his hand. “Nothing to worry about.”

Chowdhury, 48, should know. As one of seven forecasters in Bangladesh’s Department of Meteorology, he has carefully tracked every major storm and cyclone to lash this impoverished and ill-fated land since 1970.

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He was in his office that awful November night 21 years ago when the most deadly cyclone of the century left an estimated 300,000 dead or missing in its wake.

And so last month, at 3 a.m. on April 28, as an even more powerful cyclone roared up the Bay of Bengal, he sat surrounded by maps, computer printouts and fuzzy satellite photos, and began to cry.

“The cyclone had already crossed the intensity of the 1970 cyclone,” he said emotionally. “I could still remember everything of that fateful night--the panic, the deaths, the pain. It all came into my head.”

Less than 24 hours later, the most violent storm since 1876 slammed into Bangladesh’s low-lying southeast coast and offshore islands, carrying winds of 145 m.p.h. and pushing a wall of water up to 25 feet high.

The deadly winds and tidal surge obliterated entire islands and villages. Nijumdeep, an island of 30,000, disappeared for a week under churning seas. On shore, the waves swept a huge barge clear over a row of tall palm trees and dropped it in a field. Nearby, a few white sticks mark mass graves, all that’s left of a village of 3,000.

At least 138,000 are confirmed dead. Once again, however, the real death toll will never be known. Tens of thousands more are feared lost, swept from countless uncharted fishing hamlets on the tidal flats of the world’s largest and most densely populated delta.

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But for all the death and destruction, Chowdhury and others here take solace in the knowledge that it could have been far worse. After all, Bangladesh’s population of 113 million has nearly doubled since 1970.

Thanks to geostationary weather satellites, three domestic radar stations, and a bank of computers, the country’s storm tracking has improved dramatically since then. This time, with fresh data arriving each hour, the forecasters nervously watched the storm grow for four days.

With land on three sides, the warm and shallow Bay of Bengal is a breeding ground for tropical cyclones. They roar up the funnel twice a year, in the pre-monsoon months of April-May and in the post-monsoon months of October-November.

This storm began as a low pressure center 900 miles out on April 25. Still weak, it drifted slowly north. But that night, the storm suddenly stalled in a deep depression. Winds picked up and the cyclone was born.

Moving now to the northeast, it gathered speed and force for two days. By April 28, a severe cyclone raced toward the coast with deadly force. It smashed ashore near Chittagong at 2 a.m. the next morning and raged for eight hours.

But unlike 1970, many were prepared. The forecasters had issued the official danger signal 30 hours before. At that point, by law, radio stations broadcast warnings on the hour.

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Then, 15 hours later, the “great danger” signal was raised. The radio now broadcast alarms every 10 minutes. Along the coast, 21,000 Red Cross volunteers went village to village, cranking hand sirens, banging drums and shouting through bullhorns for residents to seek shelter.

The early-warning system worked extremely well, said Hamed Essafi, coordinator for the U.N. disaster relief organization. “I thought it was going to be a success story,” he said.

It was not, for several reasons. There had been false alarms before. Some farmers feared leaving their homes and animals. Others, too poor or too remote, never heard the warnings.

“We have no radio,” said a woman who lost her husband and four children in Maigpara. “We didn’t know anything about it.”

But most important, many had nowhere to flee. The World Bank built 228 concrete-block shelters after 1970. The Red Cross built another 62 on raised concrete platforms after a 1985 cyclone. But despite promises to build 3,500 more shelters, the government of the since-deposed President Hussain Mohammed Ershad built none.

Still, relief officials say the existing shelters helped at least 350,000 people survive. The lesson, they say, is key: Cyclones can’t be stopped, but wholesale slaughter can be prevented.

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“It’s a very big investment to build shelters, but what are the alternatives?” asked Denis McClean, a Red Cross official. “The land is so flat. Where will the people go?

“It’s an impossible feat of logistics to try to evacuate all those islands,” he added.

Although each large shelter costs $100,000, McClean said pressure will grow now to build more.

There are other encouraging signs in this sad land. Bangladesh suffered its last famine in 1974. Another is now unlikely, thanks to improved crop yields that have almost doubled production in six years.

Today, the country imports only 1 million tons of rice a year, about 5% of requirements. Warehouses bulge with 800,000 tons of rice and wheat as buffer stocks, including relief for cyclone-stricken villages.

“Bangladesh is almost self-sufficient in rice now,” said an American aid official. “That was unimaginable a few years ago.”

For now, numbed survivors must rebuild shattered flood embankments, homes and lives.

And in his second-floor office, still surrounded by isobars and graphs, Chowdhury allows himself a small pat on the back.

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“Though the losses are tragic, the contribution of science and meteorological knowledge contributed much to lessen the death toll,” he said. “And this is to my great satisfaction.”

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