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'The Vortex' details a cyclone that divided Pakistan and almost led to a nuclear war

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What's the changing climate mean for the stability of the countries of the world?

SCOTT CARNEY: Storms and climactic events don't just land on coastlines. They also land in the center of political systems, with all of the chaos that that entails.

INSKEEP: The writer Scott Carney was curious about what those extreme events will mean.

CARNEY: Massive storms are going to become more and more frequent in the future. And every one of those storms is a roll of the dice. And as you get more and more storms, you're rolling those dice more and more frequently, and that can spiral out of control in completely unpredictable ways.

INSKEEP: To understand what a storm can do to an unstable political situation, Carney and a co-author reached into the past. For a book called "The Vortex," they interviewed survivors of a calamity in 1970. A cyclone, a hurricane, came ashore out of the Bay of Bengal, and a British TV crew filmed the wreckage afterward.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: This placid scene is in the heart of an area where nearly a quarter of a million people have just been swept into the sea and drowned.

INSKEEP: The calm after the storm did not last long.

CARNEY: And that caused a domino effect of cascading catastrophes that ended up not only flipping a democratic election in the country of Pakistan, but also leading to a genocide, a war and all the way up to a nuclear brinksmanship between the American and Soviet navies, where we were probably about an hour away from launching nuclear weapons around the world.

INSKEEP: By the time it was over, Pakistan became two countries, Pakistan and Bangladesh. For Carney, it's a case history of how weather events intensify human conflict.

Well, let's start with the storm in this case. How big was it?

CARNEY: It was about the size of Texas, brewed up in the Bay of Bengal on sort of the warm ocean currents. And when it hit the coast in the low-lying areas of what is now Bangladesh, what was East Pakistan, it created a 20-foot storm surge. The only survivors were the people who could climb up to the tops of palm trees and hang on for their lives.

INSKEEP: The first floor fills up with water. They go to the second floor. The second floor fills up with water - just unbelievably harrowing tales.

CARNEY: Yeah. The man who survived in that instance - he's an 18-year-old fisherman named Mohammad Hai. And he's reading the Quran at night, praying for salvation, with his whole family around him - you know, 20 family members. And he climbs from floor to floor to the top of his house, climbs onto the roof, you know, is trying to, you know, bring his grandmother out and his mother out and his little brother out. And the only thing he can manage to do is jump to a palm tree and save his life, but no one follows him. And the next morning, he buries 100 people in his front yard.

INSKEEP: That disaster struck a tense country. There was East Pakistan and West Pakistan, two territories in South Asia that did not actually touch.

CARNEY: East Pakistan - Bangladesh - was ruled almost like a colonial fiefdom by West Pakistan. They was - there was a lot of racism directed towards Bengalis, who live in Bangladesh.

INSKEEP: A West Pakistani general ruled the country but was promising a free election, which was scheduled just two weeks after the storm. The ruling general dropped by East Pakistan to look around after the storm, flying over the devastation in an airplane, but then went home.

CARNEY: And he did almost nothing for the Bengalis at the time. In fact, one of his generals reported to us that that storm solved a half a million of our problems, meaning that they were glad that a half a million people died because they wouldn't have to worry about those votes going against them in the election. Unfortunately, it didn't really work out. As you can imagine, when you use a disaster as a political tool, you get people very, very angry. And the end result was that Pakistan's election flipped so hard towards the Bengalis that it was sort of like in America, if you had the Democrats win 70% of the popular vote. It was enough for East Pakistan to retain all of the political power in all of Pakistan.

INSKEEP: What you're describing is this colonial possession somehow winning the election, and it's almost like the colony was supposed to be in charge of the colonizer.

CARNEY: Yeah, and that did not go well for the people who were sitting in power at that time.

INSKEEP: The West Pakistan ruler did not give up power, instead sending in the army to repress the people who had voted against his side.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Late last March, Pakistani President Yahya Khan ordered his army into East Pakistan.

INSKEEP: This is NPR's All Things Considered from 1971.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The terror, bloodshed, mass starvation and cholera epidemic still rage in East Pakistan.

CARNEY: He funneled troops from West Pakistan to East Pakistan in aircraft and ships, landed them in Dhaka and planned a genocide. He was quoted as saying, "all we need to do is kill 3 million of them, and the rest will eat out of our hand." And that's what he did. He started doing this horrific genocide. On the day that the transition of power was supposed to happen, he shut down the country, replaced the governor, and they basically leveled Dhaka, you know, throwing artillery into the university, killing the intellectual class, killing the students, killing the political leaders. And over the course of the next year, they killed 3 million people in East Pakistan.

INSKEEP: Estimates vary for the number of people killed, but even the low ones run into the hundreds of thousands. Soon, this civil conflict became a regional war as neighboring India sent in its own army and air force. A BBC correspondent watched them fly in.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: December the 4, Indian jets attacked Dhaka Airport for the first time.

INSKEEP: The United States supported Pakistan. The country then known as the Soviet Union supported India. And each superpower sent its navy to the region.

CARNEY: And so there's actually this sort of almost, like, Wild West standoff between a Soviet subgroup and the American carrier group. And it's so tense it could go any way.

INSKEEP: Nuclear destruction seemed very possible until the West Pakistan forces surrendered. Bangladesh became an independent country, and the map of the world changed. Scott Carney says the cyclone, that extreme weather event, was a factor in world history.

But you said that you dug into it because you were thinking about the future. What did this story tell you about the future?

CARNEY: If a storm can trigger off dominoes in an unstable political situation and lead all the way to genocide, revolution and nuclear war, we are going to be facing similar problems in the future. We need to be very, very wary of our unstable political systems and us doing unpredictable things because of climactic events that are definitely going to happen.

INSKEEP: Scott Carney is the co-author with Jason Miklian of "The Vortex: A True Story Of History's Deadliest Storm, An Unspeakable War And Liberation."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.