For generations, cyclones and tidal surges have frequently devastated lives and property in coastal and island Bangladesh. This study explores vulnerability to cyclone hazards using firsthand coping recollections from prior to, during and after these events. Qualitative field data suggest that, beyond extreme cyclone forces, localised vulnerability is defined in terms of response processes, infrastructure, socially uneven exposure, settlement development patterns, and livelihoods. Prior to cyclones, religious activities increase and people try to save food and valuable possessions. Those in dispersed settlements who fail to reach cyclone shelters take refuge in thatched-roof houses and big-branch trees. However, women and children are affected more despite the modification of traditional hierarchies during cyclone periods. Instinctive survival strategies and intra-community cooperation improve coping post cyclone. This study recommends that disaster reduction programmes encourage cyclone mitigation while being aware of localised realities, endogenous risk analyses, and coping and adaptation of affected communities (as active survivors rather than helpless victims).