South Asia storm kills 84, snaps power to 5.5 million homes

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

The biggest cyclonic storm over the Bay of Bengal in two decades wreaked havoc along India’s east coast and in Bangladesh, killing dozens of people, flooding low-lying areas and affecting power supply.

Amphan is likely to continue to move north-northeastward and weaken further into a depression on Thursday, according to the India Meteorological Department. The storm, which started as a category 5 hurricane and made landfall Wednesday, will carry sustained wind speeds of 30 to 40 kilometers (19-25 miles) per hour, which may rise to 50 kilometers per hour, it said.

As many as 72 people were killed in the Indian state of West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said Thursday. In Bangladesh, at least 12 people lost their lives, private broadcaster Somoy TV reported. The cyclone snapped power supply to about 5.5 million homes and caused tidal surges, flooding homes and some coastal areas, according to the report.

“I have never seen anything like this in my life,” Banerjee said Wednesday evening. “Electricity and water supply is disconnected. Crops have been damaged. Many areas have been destroyed. We have lost communication.”

The storm had prompted Bangladesh to evacuate about 2.4 million to storm shelters, India’s West Bengal moved 500,000 people, while the eastern state of Odisha shifted 200,000 people. There are concerns that coronavirus infections may rise in cyclone shelters as people don’t have enough masks and social distancing rules are not strictly being followed at many places.

“Disasters also wreak havoc on fighting of a pandemic” as all attention and resources shift to relief operations, said Bhubaneswar-based Bhuputra Panda, associate professor with Public Health Foundation of India. The possibility of an increase in infections has risen sharply as even some quarantine centers have been converted into cyclone shelter homes, he said.

The cyclone has heaped more misery on India and Bangladesh, whose economies have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. The Indian economy is headed for its first full-year contraction in more than four decades, while Fitch Solutions in April lowered Bangladesh’s GDP growth forecast.

“It’s a big disaster. This is a bigger disaster than even Covid-19,” Banerjee told reporters late Wednesday.

West Bengal will set up a 10 billion-rupee ($132 million) fund for the restoration work, Banerjee said Thursday, adding that the state government may need to borrow money since it’s running short of funds. “We have to tackle this disaster while maintaining social distancing as much as possible,” she said.

Heavy rain flooded Kolkata airport, affecting cargo and evacuation flights, NDTV reported. Passenger flights have been suspended in India due to a nationwide lockdown to fight the coronavirus. The federal government has decided to resume domestic flights from May 25.

Light to moderate showers are expected to continue in some areas of West Bengal, while heavy rainfall is likely at some places in the northeastern states of Assam and Meghalaya, India’s weather office said. India’s National Disaster Response Force personnel are clearing roads that are blocked by uprooted trees, broken electric poles and hoardings, it said on Twitter.

Authorities in Odisha have cleared most road blocks and will be able to restore power supply to about 85% homes in four cyclone-hit districts by Thursday evening, Pradeep Kumar Jena, special relief commissioner, said by phone. The state has evacuated more than 200,000 people to safer places and there is no confirmed case of any death due to the storm, he said.

Social distancing norms are being maintained in Odisha as evacuated people have been placed in a large number of shelters, Jena said. Those centers are housing people much below their capacity. Cyclone-affected people are not being kept in 242 shelters, which are being used as virus quarantine centers, Jena said.

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