As cyclone Amphan nears, 4.2 million evacuated in coastal regions of India, Bangladesh
Nearly 4.2 million people have been moved to safety in the coastal regions of India and Bangladesh anticipating one of the severest cyclones in decades, Amphan, making landfall somewhere on the border of the two countries on Wednesday, officials said.
On Tuesday, Amphon was still several hundred kilometres out to sea in the Bay of Bengal, packing winds of up to 235 kmph and gusts of 255 kmph. It is, however, expected to lose some steam before the landfall between Digha in West Bengal and Hatiya Islands in Bangladesh.
According to the India Meteorological Department (IMD), cyclone Amphan is expected to cause more damage than its predecessors, cyclone Bulbul in November 2019 and cyclone Alia, 11 years ago. During Bulbul, a total of 1.8 lakh people had been evacuated and about a million people were affected. “We have shared the data with Bangladesh also as part of regional office of World Meteorological Organisation,” said Sanjib Banerjee, deputy director general of regional meteorological centre in Kolkata.
The cyclone will hit when India and Bangladesh are in various stages lockdown to contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic and the cyclone relief centres in both the countries are being used as quarantines for a large number of migrant workers returning home. Officials said around 2 million have been evacuated in the coastal districts of West Bengal (1.8 million) and Odisha (2 lakh) and about 2.2 million in Bangladesh.
In both Bengal and Odisha, the government has turned vacant school, colleges and other government office buildings into relief centres to ensure social distancing norms.
At least three West Bengal coastal districts - East Midnapore, North 24 Parganas and South 24 Parganas – and four of Odisha -- Balasore, Bhadrak, Jagatsinghpur and Kendrapara --- are likely to bear the brunt of the cyclone.
“We have around 60 cyclone shelters. But to maintain social distance we will use nearly 600 schools and colleges, where evacuated people will be shifted,” Partha Ghosh, district magistrate of East Midnapore.
In the six coastal blocks of South 24 Parganas, at least 4200 migrants, who returned from other states over the past few days, have been kept in quarantine, some in cyclone shelters. Now, these shelters cannot be used for evacuees and the administration has turned panchayat offices into cyclone shelter homes.
“The silver lining is that Covid-19 has not spread in the remote villages of coastal blocks,” said Javed Khan, disaster management minister of Bengal.
Even though South 24 Parganas has registered 97 Covid-19 cases till date, none have been reported from its six coastal blocks, where the evacuation is in progress. In East Midnapore, only one of 52 cases has been reported from its six coastal blocks.
“Nodal officers have been deputed for each shelter and front line workers, such as police, doctors and civil defence personnel are being given PPEs”, P Ulaganathan, district magistrate of South 24 Parganas, said.
In Odisha’s Balasore, where there are 121 Covid-19 cases, officials said only those quarantine centres, which have not been occupied, will be used for cyclone relief. In the state’s Bhadrak district, another low-lying Covid-19 hot spot, district collector Gyana Ranjan Das said arrangements had been made to shift the evacuees to cyclone shelters inside 72 panchayats and 363 schools in the district. “558 schools have also been identified to accommodate more people if required,” he said.
In addition to usual items like food, drinking water and medicines, this is the first time that masks and sanitisers, too, are being stocked at the shelters. People were being told about maintaining social distancing norms. “Nodal officers have been deputed for each shelter and front line workers such as police, doctors and civil defence personnel are being be given PPEs”, P Ulaganathan, district magistrate of South 24 Parganas, said.
While asking people to maintain social distancing, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee said maintaining social distancing “may not be possible everywhere, as the priority was to save lives in the cyclone”.
Odisha’s special relief commissioner (SRC) Pradeep Jena admitted that running cyclone relief centres during the pandemic was a challenge and said the situation was “under control” and that the district collectors had been “given a free hand”.
Bangaldesh junior disaster management minister, Enamur Rahman, said the number of shelters had been doubled to ensure social distancing, and everyone would be made to wear masks.
Banerjee said that nobody should “step outside their homes from Wednesday morning till Thursday noon,” and should wait for government clearance. “Railways and union home ministry have been requested to suspend movement of trains bringing in migrants from other states during the same period,” she said.
District administrations in the two states are making public announcements in the coastal areas and have told fishermen not to venture out to sea, while small fishing boats that had ventured out earlier were contacted on distress alert transmitters and asked to returned to shore. NDRF and SDRF have been deployed in Bengal and Odisha’s coastal areas and sandbags are in place to strengthen embankments.
Amphan’s impact on Odisha and West Bengal will likely be felt from Tuesday night onwards as wind speeds in the coastal areas are expected to pick up. Kolkata can see wind speed as high as 130 km per hour, an IMD statement said. Jena said gales between 95-110 kmph are likely to pummel the districts of Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapara, Bhadrak, Balasore and Mayurbhanj from Wednesday morning onwards even though the impact in Cuttack and Bhuvaneshwar will not be as severe. The entire region, including parts of north-east, will witness heavy to very heavy rainfall because of the cyclone till Friday.
(With AFP inputs)