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The Bay of Bengal’s fiercest storm this century, super-cyclone Amphan, slammed into the coast of eastern India and Bangladesh on Wednesday afternoon, bringing heavy gales and the threat of deadly storm surges and flooding.
The super-cyclone made landfall at 4pm local time with winds of about 120mph (190km/h), causing storm surges of up to 5 metres (17ft), before moving northwards towards Kolkata, one of India’s biggest cities. The first five deaths from the cyclone – three in the Indian state of West Bengal and two in neighbouring Bangladesh, were reported on Wednesday afternoon.
More than 2 million people were evacuated from their homes in Bangladesh, and a further half a million people in West Bengal and Odisha were moved from vulnerable low-lying areas to shelters. The Indian navy was put on high alert to be ready to offer humanitarian assistance to those caught up in Cyclone Amphan, which is only the second “super-cyclone” to form in the Bay of Bengal since records began.
The director general of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), SN Pradhan, said the situation was “fast-transforming” as the cyclone moved across West Bengal and Odisha.
“It is another form of new normal, we have to handle disasters considering the pandemic too. In view of the prevailing Covid-19 scenario, all teams are equipped with PPE [personal protective equipment],” said Pradhan.
Surging waters broke through embankments surrounding an island in Bangladesh’s Noakhali district, destroying more than 500 homes, local official Rezaul Karim said. Embankments were also breached in West Bengal’s Sundarban delta, where weather authorities had said the surge could inundate land up to 15km inland.
Evacuation efforts had been hampered by the need to follow strict physical distancing precautions to prevent the spread of coronavirus, with infection numbers still soaring in both countries. Many people had also refused to leave their homes and be moved to shelters for fear of contracting the virus.
Authorities in both India and Bangladesh said they were using extra shelter space to reduce crowding, while also making face masks compulsory and providing extra soap and sanitiser.
“Earlier we had around 5,000 cyclone centres and this time we will have more than 12,000: this is how we will maintain social distancing in the shelters,” said Enamur Rahman, Bangladesh’s junior disaster management minister.
The Catholic Relief Services aid group said people faced “an impossible choice” of braving the cyclone by staying put, or risking coronavirus infection in a shelter.
In the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps in Bangladesh, 306 Rohingya were moved from Bhasan Char, a flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal, where the government had controversially begun to house some of the refugees, to cyclone centres.
Amnesty International urged governments to keep watch for up to 1,000 Rohingya refugees who may be stranded at sea in makeshift vessels. “They are in rickety boats, these are fishing trawlers that they use to take a very dangerous route in the hope of a better life. The Bangladesh government and others must do everything to save their lives,” said Saad Hammadi, Amnesty International’s south Asia campaigner.
There are also fears the storm will do large-scale damage to the Sundarbans forest reserve, a Unesco world heritage site across the India and Bangladesh border, which is home to 96 protected tigers and other endangered species.
Storm surges of 5 metres could swamp mud dwellings along the coast, uproot communication towers and inundate roads and railway lines.
Bangladesh’s low-lying coast, home to 30 million people, and India’s east are regularly battered by cyclones that have killed hundreds of thousands of people in recent decades.
In 1999, the eastern state of Odisha was hit by a super-cyclone that killed nearly 10,000 people. Eight years earlier, a typhoon, tornadoes and flooding killed 139,000 in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh authorities fear Amphan will be the most powerful storm since Cyclone Sidr devastated the country in 2007, killing about 3,500 people.
Although outside the predicted direct path of the storm, there are fears for the safety of almost a million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in south-eastern Bangladesh – most living in vast camps and housed in flimsy makeshift shacks.
The first coronavirus cases were reported there last week, and by Tuesday there were six confirmed infections.
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Hannah Ellis-Petersen and Rebecca Ratcliffe