Fact check: The mystery of Karachi’s deadliest cyclone … that never happened

According to one NDMA report, a wind storm cyclone killed around 10,000 people in Karachi in 1965. But did it even happen?
Published July 11, 2023

When Cyclone Biparjoy drew closer to the coastal areas of Pakistan last month, it generated a conversation about the cyclones that have impacted the country over the years.

When I started looking at historical data, I found that Karachi was hit by the deadliest cyclone in its history, Cyclone 013A, resulting in the deaths of around 10,000 people, on December 15, 1965. On closer inspection, however, the information becomes confusing and the question arises: where did the number of 10,000 fatalities come from? More importantly, did a cyclone even hit the coastal areas of the Arabian Sea that year?

According to the EM-DAT, The International Disaster Database, a total of four cyclones hit Pakistan in 1965. Three of them were in East Pakistan, modern-day Bangladesh, in the months of May, June and December — the latter hit areas around Chittagong and Teknaf on the 15th of the month, killing 874 people in a single day.

The fourth cyclone, the database says, hit Karachi and killed 10,000 people. No other figures have been provided for people injured, rendered homeless and the total number of people affected. This makes the 10,000 figure even more suspicious.

Besides, a temporal assessment of flooding fatalities in Pakistan (1950–2012) in the journal of Flood Risk Management cited EM-DAT’s statistics. “The EM-DAT database provides limited information with respect to the location of the lesser 1954 flood event, but specifically lists the city of Karachi (which lies within present-day Pakistan along the Arabian Sea coastline) as being the primary impacted location during the 1965 cyclone event.”

Moreover, a report published by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), titled ‘Living with Disasters’ by Noreen Haider, quotes the number of 10,000 fatalities in Karachi caused by a wind storm cyclone on December 15, 1965. This report is no longer available on the NDMA’s website.

Separately, a Reuters report from 2007 also states that “a cyclone hit Karachi, killing 10,000 people” in 1965. Similarly, this claim was published in The News, Geo News, ABC News, The Economic Times, Voice of America and this now corrected timeline by Dawn.com.

The other side of the story

For their part, the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) did not find any record of a cyclone hitting the coast of West Pakistan in 1965. A spokesperson at the PMD’s Tropical Cyclone Warning Centre told Dawn.com that no cyclone hit the city of Karachi that year. Referring to the World Meteorological Department (WMO)’s database for Regional Specialised Meteorological Centre for Tropical Cyclones Over North Indian Ocean, he said that only three cyclones impacted East Pakistan in 1965, of which the last one occurred in December in the Chittagong district.

Mohammad Ehsan Leghari, a water management and development professional who is currently working with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) on the Sindh Coastal Resilient Project, further stressed that he “did not find any cyclonic activity that killed 10,000 people in Karachi in December”.

“It might have referred to the cyclone in East Pakistan,” he added.

According to Keesing’s Contemporary Archives: Records of World Events, only three cyclones hit East Pakistan in 1965. There is no record of any such event taking place in West Pakistan, particularly Karachi.

The cyclone that hit Chittagong on December 15 reportedly killed around 10,000 people, an event that is reported in the December 17, 1965 issue of The New York Times, (also re-published in St. Petersburg Times).

 — Dawn archives
— Dawn archives

From the archives of Dawn, between December 16 and December 20 of that year, there is detailed coverage of East Pakistan’s cyclone and the subsequent rescue and rehabilitation efforts.

 — Dawn archives
— Dawn archives

President Ayub Khan also held a press conference in Karachi, the country’s capital back then to address the cyclone. It is highly unlikely that a natural calamity of such a scale — that killed 10,000 people in the capital — would not be reported or go unnoticed.

 — Dawn archives
— Dawn archives

Even the Pope expressed sympathy for the survivors in East Pakistan.

 — Dawn archives
— Dawn archives

Several senior journalists, who spoke to Dawn.com for this piece, also said that they do not recall such an incident taking place, while all of them remembered the cyclone in East Pakistan.

So why do some databases, research papers and news reports register a cyclone killing 10,000 people in Karachi in 1965?

It seems possible that this error may have originated from a single source and that, over the years, it became an uncontested statistic being quoted by news platforms and research studies alike.

It is also probable that since the reporting was done from Karachi, as was likely the case with The New York Times, later reports wrongly cited the city and the number of deaths, confusing it with the cyclone that occurred in East Pakistan.

Header image: People enjoying the high tide ahead of cyclone Biparjoy on June 13, 2023, in Karachi. — AFP