Written by: Jenelle Eli / American Red Cross
When Cyclone Amphan—the strongest storm yet recorded in the Bay of Bengal—came barreling towards South Asia, communities went on high alert. Individuals, families, and volunteers have been preparing for this very moment.
As the cyclone approached, the Bangladesh Red Crescent and the government went into high gear by mobilizing more than 70,000 Cyclone Preparedness Program (CPP) volunteers across coastal areas. Just as they practiced, teams used megaphones and door-to-door visits to inform residents in low-lying areas about incoming danger. In communities big and small, the volunteers spread emergency warnings by foot, motorbike, bicycle, boat and even in 3-wheeled rickshaws—urging families to take the threat seriously, pack what they need and get to safety (watch volunteers spreading warnings in this short clip).
Loss, but Silver Linings
The cyclone claimed more than 15 lives in Bangladesh, damaged thousands of homes, and took the life of a Bangladesh Red Crescent volunteer on duty. People’s livelihoods—especially those who depend on cropland and fisheries—were greatly affected.
It is critical to acknowledge the losses and to act on them. But it’s also important to focus on the number of lives saved, the infrastructure that withstood the storm, and efforts that mitigated additional damage and loss of life.
Bangladesh lost at least 300,000 people to the Great Bhola Cyclone in 1970 and has since invested in enormous efforts to keep people safe during storms. Nobody knows what the future holds for upcoming cyclones, but those efforts largely paid off during Cyclone Amphan.
Simple Investments, Big Results
As Cyclone Amphan drew near, families in danger heeded warnings. Indeed, more than two million people sought safety in evacuation shelters designated by the Bangladesh government.
In the past, residents in places like South Khali had to wade through hip-high mud to reach cyclone shelters—a disincentive to evacuate. Now, thanks to pathways funded by the American Red Cross in South Khali, families threatened by dangerous weather have a dependable brick path to safety. “Now, we have a way to the shelter,” said Nur Islam, a local construction worker laying the bricks last summer. The paths proved useful to residents as they sought safety from Cyclone Amphan.
For residents who couldn’t get to shelters on their own—such as people with disabilities and older populations—help came in the form of volunteers. Red Crescent teams, government volunteers, and community members helped one another to reach the shelters in time.
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, government authorities prepared more than 12,000 evacuation shelters—three times as many as in previous years—to help ensure physical distancing and other COVID-19 hygiene measures. They also asked people to arrive at evacuation centers with their own masks.
Thanks in part to American Red Cross funding directed to coastal areas for early action, the Bangladesh Red Crescent was at the ready with food, water, and other aid that was pre-positioned to help families arriving at the shelters.
First Aid Training and Disaster Simulations
Knowing that neighbors are often first responders when disasters strike, the American Red Cross has invested in basic first aid and cyclone preparedness training in the coastal areas of Bangladesh for years. That means kids as young as age 13 know how to stop bleeding and stabilize a broken bone—skills that they use in their own families and their own communities during times of emergency (see students from an all-girls school honing their first aid skills here).
Through disaster simulations, families living in coastal communities also have the opportunity to practice their disaster skills before storms strike (view photos here). Hosted by CPP and Bangladesh Red Crescent (and partly funded by the American Red Cross), the simulations teach people how to react when a storm approaches. Community members learn to recognize the early warning signals and are taught when and where to evacuate. The simulations give community members the information, the practice, and the confidence to act when the time comes.
Cox’s Bazar Refugee Camps Avoid the Worst of Cyclone Amphan’s Wrath
Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh is home to more than one million refugees from Rakhine State. Living in crowded displacement camps on steep hills, families are in elevated danger when disasters strike.
The American Red Cross has been working alongside the Bangladesh Red Crescent for years to help families in the Cox’s Bazar camps to prepare for cyclones. This includes everything from teaching families about the country’s early warning system and strengthening shelters to training people on first aid (watch one woman’s story about learning lifesaving skills, here).
Cyclone Amphan did not track directly over Cox’s Bazar. But the camps still felt the effects of ferocious wind and rain. As the cyclone approached, volunteers—who are migrants themselves—walked through the camps with megaphones to warn residents. They went door-to-door, ensuring that people took steps to keep themselves safe.
The volunteers cautioned families to secure their shelters, with items previously provided by the Red Cross and Red Crescent. Actions included tying down their roofs and placing sand bags around the edges of their homes to prevent flooding. The measures largely worked to keep shelters standing in Cox’s Bazar—not a small feat in a place where homes are constructed of sheet metal, bamboo, and cardboard.
A long cyclone season ahead
Cyclone season has just begun and there are months of monsoons ahead. People in coastal areas and Cox’s Bazar will need to be on high alert for incoming weather and heed warnings when storms approach. There are no guarantees about how many and how strong cyclones will be. But one thing is certain: Red Cross and Red Crescent will continue helping families prepare for whatever disasters may lay ahead.