Cyclone Amphan batters India and Bangladesh, leaving at least 14 dead

A woman carries her son as she tries to protect him from heavy rain while they rush to a safer place, following their evacuation from a slum area before Cyclone Amphan makes its landfall, in Kolkata, India, May 20, 2020. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

NEW DELHI – One of the most powerful cyclones in decades slammed into low-lying coastal areas of India and Bangladesh on Wednesday, marking its path with destruction and leaving at least 14 dead, according to local officials.

Cyclone Amphan snapped power lines, blew roofs off buildings, destroyed crops and uprooted trees after making landfall. It brought lashing winds of up to 115 mph and surging waters as high as 16 feet.

The storm – which had been classified as a “super cyclone” – weakened as it approached land but remained an extremely potent storm, with the capacity to inflict enormous damage.

Four people were reported killed in Bangladesh as of Wednesday evening, including a 5-year-old boy and a 75-year-old man who were struck by falling trees, as well as a volunteer who drowned while helping people to evacuate, police said.

Nearly 3 million people evacuated their homes and moved to shelters as the storm barreled toward the coast, according to authorities in the two countries. Both India and Bangladesh are grappling with rising numbers of novel coronavirus infections, and some evacuees had expressed misgivings about spending hours in close quarters in emergency shelters because of the possibility of contagion.

Some of the worst damage appears to have occurred in the vast delta of three rivers that sits at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal where India and Bangladesh meet, an area that is home to mangrove forests and tigers.

Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of the Indian state of West Bengal, said two districts in the delta had been ravaged by the storm, with homes and crops destroyed, communications snapped, power cut and bridges unusable.

Banerjee told reporters that at least 10 people in the state had died, according to the Indian Express newspaper. The storm is a “disaster bigger than covid-19,” she said.

As the storm came ashore, millions were plunged into darkness. In the eastern Indian state of Odisha, more than 3 million people were without electricity, according to an update from a disaster relief official. There were also reports of power outages in parts of Kolkata, one of India’s largest cities, which was directly in the path of the storm.

Kolkata, whose metropolitan area is home to nearly 15 million people, experienced torrential rain driven by winds of up to 70 mph. Officials there had urged residents to stay at home.

Cyclones – the tropical equivalent of hurricanes – are becoming increasingly common in the waters off India’s eastern coast, a phenomenon that some experts say could be linked to rising ocean temperatures. In each of the past two years, there was an “above normal” number of cyclones, the Indian government said.

The region has witnessed some of the world’s deadliest storms, including a cyclone in 1999 that killed 10,000 people in India. A cyclone in 1970 left half a million dead in Bangladesh.

Both India and Bangladesh have invested in a system of emergency shelters that has allowed them to weather several major cyclones in recent years with comparatively fewer deaths than in the past. Cyclone Amphan marks a crucial test for the two countries.

Of particular worry is the cyclone’s devastating storm surge.

Waters were expected to rise as much as 16 feet higher than normal tides, causing potentially deadly flooding and destruction up to 10 miles from the coast. Indian authorities predicted extensive damage to dwellings with thatched roofs and to electricity poles and communications infrastructure. They also cited the danger from flying objects in the high winds.

Images from the coast of Odisha and West Bengal on Wednesday showed driving rain, howling winds and toppled trees as the storm neared land. Authorities in Odisha were investigating a report that an infant died when a mud wall collapsed due to heavy rain, said Pradeep Jena, a senior government official overseeing the relief effort.

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