India and Bangladesh evacuated around half a million people out of the way of the most powerful storm in a decade ahead of its landfall on Wednesday amid fears of heavy damage to houses and crops and disruption of road, rail and power links.
The authorities’ task to save lives was complicated by ongoing efforts to curb the coronavirus pandemic and enforce social distancing to avoid a surge of infections. Many thousands of migrant workers are on the roads trying to get home from big cities after a nationwide lockdown destroyed their livelihoods.
Approaching from the Bay of Bengal, super cyclone Amphan was expected to hit the coast of eastern India and southern Bangladesh with winds gusting up to 185 kilometres per hour — the equivalent of a category 5 hurricane.
The Indian weather department forecast a storm surge of three to five-metre waves — as high as a two-story house — that could swamp mud dwellings along the coast, uproot communication towers and inundate roads and rail tracks.
There will be extensive damage to standing crops and plantations in the states of West Bengal and Odisha while large boats and ships could get torn from their moorings, the weather service said in a bulletin late on Tuesday.
Authorities were hastily repurposing quarantine facilities for the looming cyclone soon after easing the world’s biggest lockdown against the virus, which in India is reported to have infected more than 100,000 people and killed 3,163.
Railway officials diverted away from the cyclone’s path a number of trains carrying thousands of migrant workers to eastern states from the capital New Delhi where they had lost their jobs due to coronavirus lockdowns.
“We have just about six hours left to evacuate people from their homes and we also have to maintain social distancing norms,” disaster management official S.G. Rai told Reuters.
“The cyclone could wash away thousands of huts and standing crops.”
About 300,000 people had been moved to storm shelters, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee said. The state capital Kolkata lies near the cyclone’s path and there was concern about people living in about 1,500 old, dilapidated buildings.
Neighbouring Bangladesh, where the cyclone posed a devastating threat along a low-lying, marshy coast, was shifting hundreds of thousands of people to higher ground. Bangladeshi authorities were also urging use of masks against the virus, which has caused 20,995 infections and 314 deaths.
“We have taken necessary steps so that people can maintain distance and wear masks,” said Enamur Rahman, the junior minister for disaster management. He said 12,000 cyclone shelters were set up to accommodate more than 5 million people.
More than a million refugees
Bangladeshi officials said the cyclone could set off tidal waves and heavy rainfall, unleashing floods.
It was expected to hit land between the districts of Chittagong and Khulna, just 150 kilometres from refugee camps housing more than a million Rohingya in flimsy shelters.
Aid workers have stockpiled emergency items such as food, tarpaulins and water purification tablets.
“We are really very worried,” said Haiko Magtrayo, a worker of the International Committee of the Red Cross based in the nearby town of Cox’s Bazar.
Hundreds more Rohingya, rescued from boats adrift in the Bay of Bengal, are living on the flood-prone island of Bhasan Char.