Thousands in India and Bangladesh left homeless as Cyclone Amphan heaps misery on coronavirus-hit communities


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Amphan, which was the most powerful cyclone ever recorded in the Bay of Bengal before it weakened, ripped apart homes, tore down trees, washed away bridges and left large predominately rural areas without power or communications.

The state of West Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said on Wednesday at least 12 people had died in eastern India, with one young girl in the Howrah district killed after a wall collapsed inside her home.

Large-scale evacuation efforts throughout India and neighboring Bangladesh appear to have saved many lives, but it could take days to realize the full extent of the deaths, injuries and damage from the cyclone. Fallen debris has made many of the roads impassible and heavy rains continue to fall on hard-hit areas.

Disaster teams worked throughout the night and into Thursday morning in India’s West Bengal and Odisha states, clearing trees and other debris from roads.

S.N. Pradhan, director-general of India’s National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF), said the worst of the damage is concentrated in two of West Bengal’s coastal districts and that the Sunderbans had been “pulverized” by the cyclone.

The Sunderbans are an ecologically fragile cluster of low-lying islands spread across India and Bangladesh, known for mangrove forests and rare wildlife, including the endangered Bengal tiger.

“Maximum impact, as expected has been seen there,” Pradhan said.

Four of the state’s least affected districts could be up and running in four to six days, and some coastal parts of Odisha are expected to be back up by this evening, he said.

“People have started moving out of shelters to assess the damage to their homes. Some have even started repairing their damaged homes,” Pradhan said.

In Kolkata, the biggest city in the direct path of the cyclone and home to 14 million people, Pradhan said that a lot of trees had been uprooted and “the city has never seen such high winds.”

Cyclone Amphan is a disaster bigger than the coronavirus outbreak, the state’s chief minister Banerjee said at a news conference Wednesday.

“The whole of the southern part of the state has been affected. We are shocked,” the chief minister said. “The cyclone has affected the electricity supply and destroyed many houses, bridges and embankments.”

In the areas affected by the cyclone, many villagers live in temporary homes with thatched or tin roofs, which were easily swept away in the powerful winds.

In Bangladesh, nearly every coastal district has been seriously affected by Cyclone Amphan, according to Ranjit Kumar Sen, an official at the Bangladesh Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief.

Sen said that the country has not yet reported an official death toll because authorities are still collecting information from its various remote field offices. But he said the damage along the coast was “huge.”

Several poorly maintained dikes and dams broke down even before the cyclone made landfall, causing extensive flooding in parts of the country.

Snigdha Chakraborty, with charity Catholic Relief Services, said the country saw storm surges as high as 15 feet (4.5 meters), inundating houses throughout the country.

Cyclone Amphan made landfall on India’s east coast, near Sagar Island in West Bengal, at around 5 p.m. local time Wednesday (7.30 a.m. ET) and began tracking north toward Kolkata, with wind speeds of up to 160 kph (100 mph), according to data from the US Joint Typhoon Warning Center.

Amphan weakened into the equivalent of an Atlantic tropical storm as it crossed the border between West Bengal and Bangladesh Thursday morning, but is still packing strong winds of up to 110 kph (68 mph). The system is expected to continue weakening over the next 24 hours as it travels northeast.

The next danger will come from the heavy rain, which could lead to flash flooding across the region through Thursday morning.

A woman stands amid the debris of her house damaged by Cyclone Amphan in Satkhira on May 21, 2020.

Mass evacuations and coronavirus

An ambitious evacuation mounted by India and Bangladesh saw an estimated 3 million people moved to safety across the two countries, according to regional authorities.

The relief operation came despite India and Bangladesh remaining under strict lockdown orders due to the coronavirus. The virus, which continues to spread through both countries, has complicated the emergency response, as relief teams grapple with how to get people to safety while also protecting them against the risk of Covid-19.

India passed more than 100,000 confirmed infections earlier this week, according to Johns Hopkins University, and recorded its largest single-day spike on Wednesday with 5,611 new cases. Meanwhile, Bangladesh’s infection count is rapidly rising, with more than 1,300 new cases on Sunday, its biggest rise to date. In total, the country has recorded 26,738 confirmed infections, according to Johns Hopkins.

Police officers carry a disabled man to a safer place following his evacuation from a slum area in Kolkata, India.

In Odisha, where more than 150,000 people were evacuated, a total of 211 of the state’s 809 permanent cyclone shelters were being used as Covid-19 quarantine centers.

Pradeep Jena, special relief commissioner for Odisha state, said emergency services had to balance saving lives from the cyclone with saving lives from the coronavirus. In evacuation centers, Jena said they were trying to keep the elderly and pregnant women separate from the rest of the population and were working hard to obtain adequate soap.

“Social distancing is definitely a very good concept but enforcing it in the strictest possible manner in a disaster situation may not always be possible,” he said.

In India’s West Bengal, which bore the brunt of the cyclone’s winds, about 500,000 people were temporarily housed in storm shelters, according to authorities, while in Bangladesh the government said they had evacuated 2.4 million people as well as about 40,000 livestock animals.

People gather at a cyclone center for protection before Cyclone Amphan made  landfall in Gabura, on the outskirts of Satkhira district, Bangladesh May 20.

It’s unknown when many of those people will be able to return home. Bangladesh Oxfam director, Dipankar Datta, said Wednesday that thousands of makeshift homes in Bangladesh had been uprooted due to the cyclone.

In what is likely to be one small glimmer of hope, Catholic Relief Services’ Chakraborty there had been no major damage reported so far in sprawling refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, which are home to nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees and had been a source of concern to aid workers after Covid-19 cases were identified there last week.

Some weak shelters were damaged in the storm and now need to be repaired, she said.

Though there is concern that the precipitation from the storm — though it made landfall on the other side of Bangladesh — could still cause landslides and flooding in the camps.

Salman Saeed and Abir Mahmud in Bangladesh, CNN’s Rebecca Wright, Brandon Miller, Michael Guy, Joshua Berlinger, Ben Westcott and Manveena Suri contributed to this article.

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