NEW DELHI – A powerful cyclone plowed inland on Wednesday after crashing into the coasts of India and Bangladesh, where more than 2.6 million people fled to shelters in a frantic evacuation made more challenging by the coronavirus pandemic.
Cyclone Amphan, the equivalent of a category 3 hurricane, was packing sustained winds of up to 170 kilometers (105 miles) per hour with maximum gusts of 190 kph (118 mph).
Although the cyclone was expected to weaken as it moved towards Bangladesh, authorities warned of extensive damage to flimsy houses and storm surges pushing seawater 25 kilometers (15 miles) inland, flooding cities including Kolkata.
The cyclone washed away bridges connecting Indian islands to the mainland and left many areas without electricity or phone service, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee told reporters Wednesday evening. She said that while a clearer picture of the devastation would emerge by Thursday, there had been at least 7 deaths.
“We are facing three crises: the coronavirus, the thousands of migrants who are returning home and now the cyclone,” said Banerjee, who is an opposition leader and one of the fiercest critics of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The southern districts of the state were worst affected, officials said, adding the crisis was far from over, with strong winds likely to continue until early Thursday morning. Heavy rainfall was forecast for many parts of the state in the coming week.
As the cyclone hit the coast, coconut trees swayed wildly, electric poles lay scattered on the roads of Kolkata, rain pounded fishing villages and rivers surged. Thousands of homes were damaged and river embankments were washed away.
“The next 24 hours are very crucial. This is a long haul," said M. Mohapatra, India's meteorological chief.
The region, with 58 million people in the two bordering countries, has some of the most vulnerable communities in South Asia. They include poor fishing communities in the Sunderbans and more than 1 million Rohingya refugees living in crowded camps in Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh.
A woman crushed by a tree and a 13-year-old girl killed near Kolkata were among the first deaths reported in India. In southern Bangladesh, a volunteer in a cyclone preparedness team drowned when a boat capsized in a canal.
The cyclone could endanger India’s fight against the coronavirus, with supply lines cut, roads destroyed and lockdown measures slowing relief work, said T. Sundaramanan, a health systems consultant in Pondicherry in southeast India.
Tuhin Ghosh, director of the School of Oceanographic Studies at Jadavpur University, said the pandemic's lockdown has already sapped people's resilience.
"Because they are economically down, they are not getting enough food. ... When another disaster comes, then it’s a double impact,” he said.
The cyclone made landfall between the seaside resort of Digha in West Bengal and Bangladesh's Hatiya Island. The eye of the storm was 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 defense by dissipating some energy from waves that would otherwise slam the coastline, said K.J. Ramesh, the department's former chief.
People living in isolated mangrove forest communities were vulnerable. Ghosh said their houses could be inundated and that mud homes had already washed away.
Bangladesh has evacuated around 2.4 million people to safety. India's West Bengal state moved nearly 300,000 and Odisha state another 148,486, officials said.
In refugee camps in Cox's Bazar, where the first 10 coronavirus cases were confirmed last week, authorities and U.N. workers prepared 50 shelters and assigned 256 volunteer units.
Areas at risk of landslides were stabilized 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 Organization 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," Pereira said.
Masks and hand sanitizers were hastily added to emergency items in the shelters. Authorities in Bangladesh had assigned medical teams for each shelter, said Bangladesh’s Junior Minister for Disaster Management and Relief Enamur Rahman.
Sobrato Das, a fisherman on Mousuni Island in India, close to the Sunderbans, described the shelters as crowded and said few people had masks.
Children were crying and women desperately tried to cover their faces with their saris while trying to maintain some distance from each other, Das said.
Some cyclone shelters in West Bengal were being used to quarantine virus patients and migrant workers returning to their homes. The state government asked for trains transporting migrants to be suspended, Banerjee said.
Some in the cyclone's path saw a choice between the virus and the storm.
Many people in Digha feared going to the shelters, fisherman Debasis Shyamal said: “They have been home for weeks, and are afraid of going into a crowd where they could get infected.”
The densely populated city of Kolkata, which has nearly 1,500 coronavirus cases, was likely to experience flooding and officials warned that some centuries-old buildings could collapse due to the strong winds. Ghosh, whose home in the city's south was being lashed by heavy rain and winds, said that Kolkata had "probably never witnessed this kind of cyclone.”
The cyclone is bearing down during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, and some Bangladeshis who fasted during the day reportedly waited until the early morning hours Wednesday before heading for the shelters.
The region is no stranger to devastating cyclones. Ramesh, the former chief of India's weather agency, said it wasn't the frequency of cyclones but their intensity that has increased due to changing climate patterns.
He said this was caused by the temperature of the sea’s surface. Warm ocean water is where storms get their energy, and the amount of heat trapped in the top 700 meters (2,300 feet) of the seas has increased.
“As a result, cyclones are intensifying faster than before,” he said.
Alam reported from Dhaka, Bangladesh. Associated Press writers Sheikh Saaliq, Emily Schmall and Chonchui Ngashangva in New Delhi contributed to this report.