A powerful cyclone has slammed the coastline of India and Bangladesh where more than 2.6 million people fled to shelters in a frantic evacuation made all the more challenging by the coronavirus pandemic.
Cyclone Amphan, an equivalent of a category-3 hurricane, was packing winds of up to 170km/h and maximum gusts of 190 km/h.
Authorities warned it could wreak extensive damage to flimsy houses and a storm surge may push seawater 25km inland, flooding cities including Kolkata.
At least 12 people have been killed.
“The whole of the southern part of the state has been affected. We are shocked. It will take three to four days to asses the damage,” chief minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee said.
The densely populated regions are home to some of the most vulnerable communities in South Asia: poor fishing communities in the Sunderbans and more than a million Rohingya refugees living in the crowded camps in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.
The cyclone began to make landfall Wednesday afternoon between Digha, a seaside resort in West Bengal, and Hatiya Islands in Bangladesh.
The eye of the storm is likely to pass through the Sunderbans, one of the largest mangrove forests in the world, India’s meteorological department said.
The forests could act as a vital line of defence by dissipating some of the energy from the waves that would otherwise crash into the coastline, said KJ Ramesh, the department’s former chief.
Bangladesh is attempting to evacuate 2.2 million people to safety.
India’s West Bengal state moved nearly 300,000 and Odisha state another 148,486 people, officials said.
In Cox’s Bazar, where the first 10 coronavirus cases were confirmed last week, authorities and UN workers prepared 50 shelters and assigned 256 volunteer units.
Areas at risk of landslides were stabilised with bamboo and concrete walls.
But the combination of the virus and cyclone could lead to a “new humanitarian crisis”, said Manuel Pereira, deputy chief of mission for the International Organisation for Migration in Bangladesh.
“We know that if people are forced to seek communal shelter, they’ll be unable to maintain physical distancing and run the risk of contracting or transmitting the virus,” said Pereira.