As details slowly emerge of the horrifying cyclone that devastated coastal areas of Bangladesh this week, the destruction and loss of life stun the imagination. Officials are talking of a death toll of 100,000 "or more." Some rescue agencies mention the possibility of 200,000 dead. Clearly, the rest of the world must mount a major relief effort.

The problem is more than those who drowned in the national catastrophe. Tens of thousands are homeless, lacking food, water, medicine and shelter. People are dying of exposure. Bangladesh's main harbor has been destroyed and communications wrecked. Much of the current rice crop is gone, next year's crop is threatened because rice paddies are covered with salt water, and 70 percent of the cattle in the area are dead.Some 1,500 fishing boats and 15,000 fishermen are missing.

Even in the best of times, Bangladesh is a basket case. Its 110 million people live in one of the most densely populated areas on Earth. Three of every four children and adults are illiterate. There is almost no industry, and poverty is grinding. The life expectancy is only 49 years.

The low-lying country is frequently hit with storms, floods, famine and disease. A year without thousands dying in natural disasters is uncommon. Twenty years ago, a 138 mph cyclone killed 500,000 people.

This week's eight-hour storm was even more fierce, with winds of 145 mph and 20-foot waves. Some 185 miles in diameter, it roared out of the Bay of Bengal just after midnight, overwhelmed 65 coastal islands - where 10 million people live - and churned up the country's east coast, killing 25,000 in the harbor city of Chittagong alone.

Bangladesh officials are pleading for $1.4 billion in assistance. World-wide relief agencies have responded heroically and various countries have pledged millions of dollars in emergency help. But getting enough aid to victims in Bangladesh and its coastal islands in time will be difficult.

The disaster could not have come at a worse time for international relief agencies that already are stretched to the limit in caring for 2 million Kurdish refugees, the threat of famine in northern Africa, and victims of an earthquake in Turkey and Soviet Georgia. In addition, millions of people in Iraq are faced with crop failures and possible famine.

The Persian Gulf war showed that members of the United Nations, with strong American leadership, are capable of effectively joining hands in major undertakings. That same kind of response is needed in Bangladesh and other places wracked by disaster.

As Congress debates spending $95 billion for a new U.S. fighter plane, at least some attention ought to be paid to other, more urgent priorities.