Surviving the cyclone

By Ujjal Mondol, Disaster Management Officer, World Vision Bangladesh

In 2009, during Tropical Cyclone Aaila, Ujjal had only recently begun working with World Vision as a Disaster Management Officer. Newly married, he left his new wife at home to respond to the crisis. Now, six years later he tells us about his memories of the time.

People are usually nostalgic when remembering the long gone past. In my case, however, the nostalgia is quite different. I remember things that will haunt me till my last breath.

Every time it rains, every time a flood warning is issued, I can feel the nervous sweat starting to trickle down my back.

Six years ago, I faced one of the biggest disasters in my country’s history. I was newly married - just 10 days in - when I got a call telling me to prepare for the worst.

The storm was called ‘Aaila’ - a tropical cyclone that would eventually kill 334 people in Bangladesh and leave 40,000 people homeless in the southwest region where I worked.

As an employee of World Vision, I needed to act.

As I said goodbye to my wife I was afraid; I was heading out to save others, but would my own family be safe? I left with a heavy heart and a prayer.

As soon as my team and I hit the ground, we started warning families about the impending storm. Travelling from neighbourhood to neighbourhood as quickly as possible, we spoke on megaphones, urging people to take shelter.

During this time, the wind was so powerful that some of the dams started breaking. As soon as we saw this, we knew something catastrophic was about to happen.

Still, many people ignored our message and didn't take shelter.

Looking back on it now, the situation reminded me of the story of the shepherd and the tiger. In that tale, the shepherd used to fool people into thinking that a tiger was coming. But when the tiger finally does come, the people thought it was just another lie.

The people here were not used to facing disasters; there hadn’t been another big one since 1988. Even when Cyclone ‘Sidr’ struck Bangladesh in 2007, our region had escaped largely unscathed. With hindsight, I think everyone believed that this time they would be safe too.

But nature is good at giving both surprises and shocks in equal measure. The biggest shock came for us during the high tide the day Aalia struck. People had stayed at their homes without taking any precaution.

The river’s dams broke easily at high tide. Within several minutes, a tidal surge engulfed the whole area. People were dragged into the river by the greedy waters. There was nothing we could do.

Those who were not caught up in the waves were desperately running in an effort to save themselves. Most were caught between trying to save their own lives, helping their neighbours or saving their livestock - often their only source of income.

Everyone was in dire need, and it became every man for himself. No one had time to help anyone else in those moments. Before long, the whole area was under water.

The cyclone destroyed hygiene systems, and sewage was swept along with everything else in the flood waters. Health facilities were closed. Clean water was unavailable. It was a desperate situation.

People were astonished. They realized they had underestimated the disaster, but this realisation came too late.

I can still remember the pain of seeing families trying to survive. The scene of a disabled child trying to reach safety tore my heart apart. I still ask God for the reasons why this disaster occurred.

Around 8,000 families in the area were affected. In the immediate aftermath, World Vision provided relief packages of food, candles and clothes to vulnerable families.

In the following days and weeks, we helped 500 families who had been living close to the dams with tents and temporary shelters. We also provided clean water for the community and started cash for work programmes to financially support survivors and help clean-up the communities.

Later, when I returned home to my wife, I reflected on the importance of being prepared and following early warning messages. I now know why it’s important to build toilets and sanitation facilities in higher places, away from dams and areas liable to flood. I saw for myself how important it is to prioritise the needs of the vulnerable during a disaster - children, pregnant women, the disabled and the elderly always suffer the worst.

Six years later, I’m now a proud father. My goal is for my one-year-old daughter and the other children in our community to understand the importance of being prepared for an emergency, and my work is helping me do this. We encourage families to try and have extra reserves of dry food, water, a temporary burner and fuel for cooking in an emergency.

Whilst we cannot prevent natural disasters from occurring, together we can do our best to decrease the effects they will inevitably have on communities, families and children. I’m hopeful when the next storm comes, we will be ready.

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