The devastating Bhola cyclone in November 1970 is credited with having triggered the political events that led to the division of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. A callous response to the disaster by the Pakistani regime resulted in a landslide electoral victory for Bengali nationalists, followed by a bitter and bloody civil war. Yet, despite its political momentousness, the Bhola cyclone has been the subject of little political analysis. This paper examines the events, arguing that its extraordinary political significance put disaster management on the nationalist agenda; the famine of 1974 confirmed its centrality, producing a social contract to protect the population against disasters and subsistence crises on which the country’s acclaimed resilience to the effects of climate change rests. The Bhola cyclone also drew international attention to this neglected, little‐known region, and in general can be seen as foundational for the subsequent developmental achievements of Bangladesh.