Book Review: The Vortex

The Vortex: A True Story of History’s Deadliest Storm, an Unspeakable War, and Liberation
Scott Carney and Jason Miklian
Copyright 2022 by the authors

In November, 1970, a cyclone slammed into East Pakistan. It was the deadliest storm in history, leaving some half a million dead in its wake. Fifteen months later, after a brutal and genocidal war, the nation of Bangladesh was born. As Carney and Miklian show, the events were not unconnected.

Through a mass of documentation and interviews with people who were there, Carney and Miklian have recreated the setting and placed you right in the action.

We are clinging for dear life to a palm tree with Mohammad Hai, the son of a fisherman, as the eye of the hurricane passes directly over his home. There’s football star Hafiz Uddin Ahmad, deciding to join the army as a way (as one of the minority Bengali) to get more respect. American expats Candy and Jon Rohde, in Dacca putting Jon’s medical degree to work as a way to avoid Vietnam, using their local contacts to organize a relief effort.

It’s not all about the storm; it’s more about the aftermath. Not only did the Partition of India split the subcontinent into Hindu (India) and Muslim (Pakistan) sections, but Pakistan was geographically separated into West (Punjabi) and East (Bengali) parts. Being larger and more prosperous, it was easy for West Pakistan to oppress the Bengali in the east. The disruption after the storm passed presented President Yahya Khan with the perfect opportunity to deal with those nasty Bengali once and for all, especially with an election coming up….

Carney and Miklian have woven all the threads into a multilevel personal narrative; eschewing a documentary style to instead put you into the minds of the principals and experiencing things from their view. It’s tricky with people who are dead, but they’ve managed to do it well enough.

They cannot avoid discussing what the cyclone can tell us about global warming. Not that these storms are going to be more common, but that the we need to be ready for the social disruption that they will cause. Despots and dictators will use the opportunity for plunder and to settle scores. Aid programs will be wasted through graft and mismanagement, and international geopolitics will delay any significant response. They don’t need to be explicit; it’s pretty obvious that an American response to the genocide against the Bengali was hamstrung because Yahya Khan offered to arrange a meeting between Nixon and Mao; and nothing – even the lightest criticism of what was going on in East Pakistan – could jeopardize that.

Normally, one reads about disasters and wars at a comfortable remove. By interviewing the people who were there and essentially letting them tell their stories, Carney and Miklian make it personal. It can be an emotionally difficult read at times, but that’s part of the point. Sometimes only a punch to the gut will lead to constructive action. By telling the story of the cyclone and the war afterwards in such a manner, perhaps we’ll take steps to prevent similar catastrophes in the future…..

In the end, though, this book really isn’t about all that. It’s about freedom fighter Mohammed Hai, with his friend and fellow cyclone survivor, symbolically surrendering rifles at the independence ceremony. It’s about Hafiz Uddin Ahmad, serving in the honor guard when the new nation’s president arrived in the capital for the first time. It’s about Candy and John Rohde, still on the job helping as the largest refugee camp closed down when it was no longer needed. This is their story.



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