Millions Evacuated From India, Bangladesh as Cyclone Nears Making Landfall

Authorities along India’s east coast and neighboring Bangladesh have evacuated millions to safer places and shut some factories as the biggest cyclonic storm in two decades starts to make landfall, causing heavy rain and strong winds in the region.

Amphan, now equivalent of a category 3 hurricane after weakening from category 5, is likely to cross Digha in India and Hatiya islands in Bangladesh by Wednesday evening, with the landfall process continuing for about three hours, according to the India Meteorological Department. Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative Ltd. has shut parts of its phosphatic fertilizer factory, the nation’s biggest, at Paradip in Odisha, according to the company’s spokesman.

The cyclone is expected to carry sustained wind speeds of 160 to 170 kilometers (99-106 miles) per hour, which could rise to as much as 190 kilometers per hour, the weather office said. Bangladesh has evacuated about 2.4 million people to storm shelters from coastal districts, said State Minister for Disaster Management Enamur Rahman. The cyclone also shut Chattogram port, the main port of the country. In India’s West Bengal, almost 300,000 people have been moved into relief centers, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said.

The storm will be intense enough to damage crops, plantations, trees, mud houses and communication and electric poles, as well as disrupt road traffic and transportation of essential goods. Apart from the storm threatening lives of people and animals, authorities face another risk — evacuating millions of people during a pandemic, which may lead to a jump in infections.

“At relief centers, we are providing masks and some food to people,” Firhad Hakim, mayor of Kolkata, told reporters Wednesday. “We have arranged for beds for them. There are so many people that it is difficult, but we are trying to maintain social distancing as much as we can. We will make sure that nobody catches coronavirus at the relief centers.”

India’s federal government has directed states to follow social-distancing rules to contain the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than 100,000 people so far in the country.

In Bangladesh, the cyclone has brought another threat to the Rohingya refugees staying in crowded camps, said Mahbub Alam Talukder, the nation’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner. There are about 3,500 volunteers on the ground working to protect the Rohingyas from the storm’s path, he said.

“Saving lives comes first,” Talukder said. “Our priority at this moment is to protect the Rohingyas from the imminent threat of the cyclone. It’s difficult to maintain social distancing at a time when another threat like cyclone Amphan appears. We’ll think about social distancing later,” he said. At least four virus cases have been detected in the refugee camps.

Blow to Economy

The cyclone is set to cause further misery to India and Bangladesh, which are witnessing a slump in economic activity due to 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.

Amphan is forecast to be the worst storm over the Bay of Bengal since the 1999 super cyclone that hit the eastern Indian state of Odisha, according to Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, director general of India’s weather department. The country’s worst-ever cyclone had killed about 10,000 people in the state two decades ago.

The Bangladesh navy has kept 25 ships and two maritime patrol aircraft on standby for immediate rescue and relief efforts in the coastal areas of Chattogram, Khulna and Mongla. The air force has readied six planes and 22 helicopters to rescue people, provide first-aid and survey damage, according to the Inter-Services Public Relations Directorate. The country has advised Mongla and Payra ports to follow ‘great danger’ signal 10.

Most ports on India’s eastern coast have suspended inward movement of shipping vessels and advised them to shift to safe anchorage, according to an advisory issued by various ports. Adani Group-owned Dhamra port canceled inward movement of vessels and advised others at berth to shift to the sea.

Cyclone Shelters

Bangladesh has prepared more than 14,000 cyclone shelters in coastal districts for 5.19 million people. The south Asian nation suspended river transport, including ferry services from all five piers, as the storm moves closer to the coast, according to water transport authorities. Over 500,000 cows and goats have also been moved to safety.

In India, about 25 teams from the National Disaster Response Force have been deployed on the ground, while 12 others are on stand by. Odisha had evacuated 148,486 people as of Wednesday morning, said Pradeep Kumar Jena, special relief commissioner of the state. Odisha has about 560 permanent cyclone shelters and identified more than 7,000 public buildings as temporary facilities.

State-run Indian Oil Corp., which has a coastal refinery in Odisha and another plant in West Bengal’s Haldia, is continuing operations normally with some precautionary measures. Berthing of vessels has been suspended, and it stopped all project and maintenance work for the cyclone to pass, according to a spokesperson.

— With assistance by Debjit Chakraborty, Dhwani Pandya, Swansy Afonso, Unni Krishnan, and Jeanette Rodrigues

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