The tsunami spared them, but on south Asia’s coast of calamities, where the sea kills with regularity and abandon, they know their turn will come.
“God knows what will happen to us next time,” Nur Hussein said. The 45-year-old peasant stood beneath a sturdy rain tree he climbed and clung to in 1991, when a super cyclone drove 25-foot-deep waters across flat little Kutubdia, sweeping 19 of his family to their deaths along with 10,000 other islanders.
Fourteen years have passed and Bangladesh is now better prepared for the Bay of Bengal’s killer storms, with hundreds of concrete shelters and thousands of volunteers to warn and help the population when a cyclone approaches.
But Hussein, like other Bangladeshis, has no shelter near his hut. Sea walls promised long ago exist only on paper. Meteorologists in the distant capital work with outdated forecasting tools. And too many of the volunteers lack batteries for megaphones and bicycles for their rounds.
“My first aid kit has been empty for three or four years,” said Dipurani Sil, 35, a first aid team member here.
In the aftermath of the Dec. 26 tsunami that devastated coastlines in nearby countries, Bangladesh stands as an example of how one impoverished land, with foreign help, has recovered from past catastrophes and prepared for future ones -- and of how it has not.
The regional head of the national Cyclone Preparedness Program is candid about its shortcomings. “If it happened today, all the people would know a super cyclone was coming, but due to the shortage of cyclone shelters, many people would still be killed,” Golam Rabbani said at his radio-equipped command center in Chittagong, a port city 30 miles north of here.
That still would be an improvement over 1991, when the nearby mainland district of Banshkhali got no warning, and 40,000 people there died.
The world was stunned by the number of lives lost in December’s earthquake-tsunami in the Indian Ocean -- more than 150,000 in 11 nations. But even greater numbers have perished on Bangladesh’s 440-mile coast.
A staggering 300,000 to 500,000 people were killed when a cyclone slammed into the central coast in November 1970, and some 140,000 in the 1991 disaster in the southeast. Dozens of other cyclones have killed more than 60,000 Bangladeshis since 1960.
Storm surges created by cyclones, similar to a tsunami’s “walls of water,” are magnified over the shallow depths of Bangladesh’s continental shelf. In the 1970 storm, whose 138-mph winds made it a “super” cyclone, the surge reached 30 feet.
A generation later, on the night of April 29, 1991, a cyclone with 140-mph winds made landfall around Chittagong. The 100,000 people of 13-mile-long, fish-shaped Kutubdia island, mostly rice sharecroppers and fishermen living 4,000 to a square mile, huddled in flimsy bamboo shacks. Along nearby beaches, 10-foot-high mud embankments faced a 25-foot storm surge.
Reporters flying over Kutubdia saw the victims everywhere -- bloated, decomposing, afloat in the water.
“I saw thousands and thousands of dead bodies. Oh!” said Chowdhury Kamal Ibne Yusuf, who was then health minister. “We were not prepared. There was no preparation at all.”
Even in Chittagong, where warnings were issued, 3,000 died when the sea washed over the 2-mile-wide Patenga peninsula.
“There were always warnings before, and nothing happened. People didn’t listen,” recalled a survivor named Solaiman, 35, who lost 18 family members.
“In ’91, you can say we were at the stage you now see in Sri Lanka and the Maldives with the tsunami,” said Mohammad Nojibur Rahman, a government disaster-prevention expert.
Bangladesh then moved into the next stage, a year later, creating a ministry for disaster management, now led by Yusuf. Foreign donors and Bangladeshi agencies began building shelters, hundreds of two- or three-story concrete boxes raised on pillars, each able to hold between a few hundred and 3,000 people. Because of the flat and overpopulated terrain, poor roads and relatively short-notice alerts, people have nowhere else to flee.
More than 2,000 shelters now dot this coast of marsh and paddy. Kutubdia has 92 shelters, including one, financed by the European Union, near where 250 islanders saved themselves by jamming onto a small mosque’s rooftop in 1991.
But Bangladesh is a crowded land -- 141 million people in a place the size of Iowa -- and officials acknowledge that at least 3,000 more shelters are needed.
Kutubdia itself needs 30 more, an official said. Outside that small mosque, Mohammad Yunus, who fled to its roof as a teenager, said the new shelter is too small. “It can hold only half the people around here.”
Yusuf, the Cabinet minister, said there would be fewer casualties today if a storm like 1991’s struck, but still “there’s a huge need for more shelters” -- with no money and no plans for them.
Even the international Red Cross, which built 149, has ceased financing shelters, which can cost up to $100,000 each because of remote locations, the need for strong foundations and pillars, and high transport costs for building materials.
“It’s funding,” said Mohammad Nasir Ullah, national director of the Cyclone Preparedness Program. “Needs came up in other countries for federation funding.”
The havoc of the tsunami has spurred some action. Seeing its neighbors devastated, Bangladesh’s government said in January it would accelerate a program to build new schools as shelters. But that would take years.
“The government doesn’t have the capacity to build schools to meet the need for shelters,” said Monzu Morshed of CARE Bangladesh, whose organization inventoried the cyclone shelters and found extensive problems. One in eight were found to be unusable.
Though short in numbers, the shelters are still more advanced than other ideas for warding off new calamities.
After the 1991 cyclone, officials said they would ring Kutubdia with a 26-foot-high embankment within two years. But today, barely one-tenth of the island’s 30-mile circumference has new embankments, and none is more than 10 feet high.
The government in the 1990s began planting a “green belt” of trees along the Bangladesh coast, to brake waves and wind. But today Kutubdia has only a couple of lonely stands of feathery tamarisks taking root.
After 1991, the government gave Kutubdia its first “roads” -- raised pathways of brick just wide enough for the few motor vehicles on the island, where pedal-rickshaws are the main transport.
The network will help islanders reach shelters, and will help Kutubdia’s 636 cyclone volunteers do their jobs in an emergency -- if they know what to do and have the means to do it.
Because of declining foreign funding, the national program has fallen years behind in training newcomers among its 33,000 volunteers, and fewer than half are fully equipped, Red Crescent officials said.
The Kutubdia volunteers -- assigned to warning, shelter, rescue, first-aid and relief teams -- are short on transistor radios and flashlights, raincoats and gumboots, and lifejackets for the elderly and children. Forty more bicycles are needed to make the teams mobile.
The warning teams’ megaphones are chronically short of simple dry-cell batteries. Power is a challenge in other ways too, since the island generator supplies electricity only sporadically.
In Dhaka, the Bangladesh Meteorological Department and its antiquated computers face their own challenges.
The meteorologists rely on a slow-speed link to the Global Telecommunications System, a worldwide weather-data collection net. Their cyclone forecasting has improved over the years, “but the GTS link sometimes fails, and we cannot repair it,” said Samarendra Karmakar, senior deputy director. “Our budget is limited.”
Almost 200 miles to the south, where the merciless sea meets the overcrowded land, the women of Kutubdia wait in rebuilt bamboo homes for April and another cyclone season.
“I have no idea if we’re safe now,” said Ismat Ara, 32, who has borne four more children since losing her newborn that night in 1991. “If things are organized, maybe we’ll be rescued.”
Things are organized, said Syed Mohammad Zobaer, Disaster Management Bureau chief in Dhaka. He and others point to a “super” storm that struck in 1997 and took only 126 lives.
“The shelter system is very effective,” Zobaer said. “It’s a great achievement of the people of Bangladesh.”
But that 1997 storm, luckily, hit at low tide and with a small surge. What would happen to the millions on the Bangladesh coast if, instead, another 1991 storm roared up the Bay of Bengal?
Abdul Shakur, 44, who clutched his boy in a treetop that howling night, was quick to answer.
“It would be like before,” he said. “It would be as bad as ’91.”