— Can catastrophic storms change the course of history? The answer is yes, based on what happened after the deadliest tropical cyclone in recorded history hit East Pakistan in 1970.
Low-lying islands were inundated, and entire villages were wiped out on Nov. 12, 1970, when the Bhola cyclone swept over the Bengal coast. Crops were destroyed throughout the region. The storm and its aftermath killed as many as 500,000 people.
At the time, East Pakistan was a province separated from the rest of Pakistan by hundreds of miles of Indian territory. Political discord had been in the air even before the storm, but the Pakistani government came under severe criticism for its handling of relief operations afterward.
The outcry drew thousands of protesters to anti-government rallies — and the opposition capitalized on the popular dissatisfaction by winning a landslide victory in national elections held a month after the storm.
The political situation quickly deteriorated to the point that civil war broke out in 1971 — a conflict that widened into a war with India and led to East Pakistan's independence as the new nation of Bangladesh.
Will this month's catastrophic Cyclone Nargis touch off a fresh wave of political change just across the Bay of Bengal, in the isolated nation of Myanmar? It's too early to predict, but the Bhola cyclone shows that a fatal storm's impact does not end when the winds die down.
Deadliest storms mostly in Bengal
Storms in the Bay of Bengal account for seven of the 10 deadliest hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones in recorded history, as documented by Weather Underground. The casualty figures are notoriously difficult to pin down, but here is the list:
- Bhola cyclone, Bangladesh (East Pakistan), 1970. Death toll estimated at 150,000 to 550,000.
- Hooghly River cyclone, India and Bangladesh, 1737. Death toll: 350,000.
- Haiphong typhoon, Vietnam, 1881. Death toll: 300,000.
- Coringa cyclone, India, 1839. Death toll: 300,000.
- Backerganj cyclone, Bangladesh, 1584. Death toll: 200,000.
- Great Backerganj Cyclone, Bangladesh, 1876. Death toll: 200,000.
- Chittagong cyclone, Bangladesh, 1897. Death toll: 175,000.
- Super Typhoon Nina, China, 1975. Death toll: 171,000.
- Cyclone 02B, Bangladesh, 1991. Death toll: 140,000.
- Great Bombay Cyclone, India (from the Arabian Sea), 1882. Death toll: 100,000.
Depending on how the final death toll is estimated, Cyclone Nargis may well find its way onto the top-10 list. On Wednesday, a U.S. diplomat told The Associated Press that the toll could top 100,000.
Other deadly disasters
To put those figures into perspective, other types of natural disasters have caused far more casualties throughout history. China's 1931 Yangtze River flood rates as the very deadliest on the list, with estimates of the death toll ranging from 850,000 (or even lower, according to the Chinese government) to as many as 4 million people.
The deadliest earthquake in recorded history is China's Shaanxi earthquake of 1556, which is said to have killed 830,000 people. The Asian tsunami of 2004 also rates a place on the top-10 list for the deadliest natural disasters, with the toll currently estimated at more than 230,000 people.
The 1900 Galveston hurricane, which killed about 8,000 people in Texas, is considered the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.