A powerful cyclone has hit Bangladesh and eastern India killing at least 20 people and destroying thousands of homes, officials said, leaving authorities struggling to mount relief efforts amid a surging coronavirus outbreak.
Authorities began surveying the damage on Thursday after millions spent a sleepless night which saw up to 170 kilometre (105 miles) an hour winds carrying away trees, electricity pylons, walls and roofs, and transformer stations exploding.
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Millions across India and Bangladesh were left without power in the wake of the most powerful cyclone to have hit in more than 20 years.
The eastern Indian state of West Bengal took the brunt of Cyclone Amphan. The state’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said at least 12 people had died in the state, and two districts been completely battered.
“Area after area has been devastated. Communications are disrupted,” Banerjee said, adding that the state authorities had not entirely anticipated the ferocity of the storm.
Villagers salvage items from their house damaged by cyclone Amphan in Midnapore, West Bengal [Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP]
‘Everything is destroyed’
In neighbouring Bangladesh, officials said eight people had died, including a five-year-old boy and a 75-year-old man, hit by falling trees and a cyclone emergency volunteer who drowned.
Bangladesh officials said they were waiting for reports from the Sundarbans, a UNESCO World Heritage Site famed for its mangrove forest and population of endangered Bengal tigers, which bore the brunt of the storm.
“We still haven’t got the actual picture of the damage. We are particularly concerned over some wild animals. They can be washed away during storm surge in high tide,” forest chief Moyeen Uddin Khan told AFP news agency.
The ecologically fragile region straddling the Indian-Bangladesh border is best known for thick mangrove forests that are a critical tiger habitat.
Houses “look like they have been run over by a bulldozer”, said Babul Mondal, 35, a villager on the edge of the Indian side of the Sundarbans, which is home to approximately four million people.
“Everything is destroyed,” he said.
Widespread relief that the evacuation of more than three million people from coastal villages had averted the horrific death tolls of past storms was tempered by fears of the coronavirus pandemic spreading in crowded shelters.
Authorities in both countries sent masks and sanitiser but social distancing was virtually impossible as families packed into reinforced schools, government buildings and community halls.
A man walks over a collapsed wall after Cyclone Amphan made landfall in Kolkata, India [Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters]
Kolkata awoke to flooded streets
West Bengal capital Kolkata awoke to flooded streets with some cars window-deep in water. Much of the city of 15 million people was plunged into darkness as transformer stations exploded.
The cyclone weakened as it moved along the Bangladesh coast but still unleashed heavy rains and fierce winds in Cox’s Bazar, the district which houses about one million Rohingya refugees from violence in Myanmar.
The cyclone brought a storm surge – a wall of ocean water that is often one of the main killers in large weather systems – that roared inland.
In southwest Bangladesh, a 1.5 metre (five-feet) surge broke an embankment and swamped farmland, police told AFP.
Cyclones are an annual hazard along the Bay of Bengal coast. Amphan was the first “super cyclone” to form over the Bay of Bengal since 1999.
In 2007 Cyclone Sidr left more than 3,500 dead in Bangladesh.
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.
A 1999 super cyclone left nearly 10,000 dead in India’s Odisha state, eight years after a typhoon, tornadoes and flooding killed 139,000 in Bangladesh.
In 1970, half a million perished in Bangladesh – a nation of 160 million.
2.4 million people and more than half a million livestock were brought to shelters in Bangladesh [Abu Sufian Jewel/AP Photo]
Faster evacuations, better technology
While the frequency and intensity of storms have increased – blamed partly on climate change – casualties have fallen thanks to faster evacuations, better technology and more shelters.
Enamur Rahman, Bangladesh’s junior minister for disaster management, told AFP 2.4 million people and more than half a million livestock were brought to shelters.
India evacuated more than 650,000 in West Bengal and Odisha states.
Because of the coronavirus, authorities used extra shelter space to reduce crowding, while making face masks compulsory and setting aside isolation rooms.
Infection numbers are still soaring in both countries.