As aid workers clear up after Bangladesh's cyclone, they say developing countries are getting better at handling disasters -- but it may not be enough in the face of climate change.
Bangladesh's worst cyclone since 1991 killed about 3,500 people, left thousands missing or injured and displaced 2 million.
The Bangladeshi air force has been unable to cope with the scale of the disaster, officials say, with many survivors still desperately needing aid despite supplies brought with the help of helicopters from nearby U.S. warships.
But aid experts say a few years ago the death toll would have been much higher, pointing out that while too many died this time the progress compared to earlier disasters was marked.
They say that if Cyclone Sidr had hit the impoverished, low-lying South Asian country in the 1990s some 100,000 would have died.
"We are definitely getting better at it," said Care International UK emergency planning specialist Kate Akhtar, pointing to improvements in advance warning and the provision of cyclone shelters. "Disaster preparedness was much better."
Bangladesh is not the only country seen as having drastically improved its management of disasters.
When floods hit Mozambique this year, aid workers say the government was swift to broadcast radio warnings and evacuate people from vulnerable areas. Some 45 people died, compared to 700 in 2000-2001 -- when many remained with their property until it was too late. In both, there were fewer deaths from disease.
When a quake hit off the Indonesian island of Sumatra in September, it sparked tsunami warnings. In the 2004 tsunami, tens of thousands died having been unaware of the giant wave heading towards them for hours across hundreds of miles of sea.
This time, although there was no tsunami, warning systems kicked in and people headed to higher ground.
Aid agencies say disaster preparedness has become a new hot topic in the developing world.
But not everyone is as well prepared.
Aid workers say when disasters strike countries and communities unaccustomed to them, much more goes wrong.
In recent floods in Ethiopia, the Red Cross says regions that had experienced similar events before adapted well. Those being hit for the first time saw more outbreaks of disease, psychological problems and avoidable deaths.
Unfortunately, aid agencies say that with climate change there seems to be a rapidly increasing number of disasters in areas that have not seen them before. The trend is global. This year, communities from rural England to Ghana to Pakistan have been struck by unexpected floods.
It seems to be getting worse. The Red Cross says it has seen an increase from 200 to 500 disasters a year in three years.
"What we are seeing with climate change is a huge increase in small disasters," IFRC head of operations support Peter Rees told Reuters. "Tackling climate change is not just about dealing with emissions. It is about increasing disaster preparedness. This is happening now."
The chaotic and confused response to 2005's Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans showed even developed countries could struggle in the face of such threats.
IFRC's Rees said communities in rich countries were much less likely to make plans beyond simply waiting for the emergency services. But if the trend for increasing disasters continued, he warned they would have to learn.
While local Red Cross or Red Crescent societies in almost every country from China to the United States could respond with local volunteers, Rees said, the rise in small disasters made old models in which Western aid groups flew in unworkable.
And if, as some predict, climate change causes refugee numbers to soar and sparks new wars, coping will be harder..
"Are we getting better?" he said. "Definitely yes. Are we ready for the challenge of climate change? That is another matter." ( Reuters )