Destruction in Odisha, West Bengal as cyclone Amphan strikes
Cyclone Amphan roared into West Bengal around 20km east of Sagar Island in the Sunderbans on Wednesday, packing winds gusting to a top speed of 185 kmph, triggering torrential rain and leaving a trail of devastation across a wide swath of the state, from deltaic regions to the urban neighbourhoods of Kolkata.
Amphan, the most severe storm in the Bay of Bengal since the Odisha super cyclone of 1999, made landfall between 3.30pm and 5.30pm, flattening houses, uprooting trees and electric pylons, causing rivers to swell and breach their embankments, and killing at least three people in two states according to initial reports.
Two women died in West Bengal; both crushed by falling trees in Howrah district and in the Minakhan area of North 24 Parganas. Earlier in the day, a two-month-old baby was killed in a wall collapse on Wednesday morning after heavy overnight rains in neighbouring Odisha’s Bhadrak district.
“It’s an intense and devastating storm. It is a multi-hazard scenario with heavy rain, strong winds and tidal surge all at the same time. It must have inundated large areas,” said M Mohapatra, director general of the India Meteorological Department (IMD).
At least 658,000 people were evacuated in West Bengal and Odisha before the cyclone struck.
The destruction may be massive, which cannot be assessed at the moment, as the storm will remain in West Bengal as a cyclone until Thursday morning. It crossed the state and Bangladesh coasts by 7pm on Wednesday and moved north-northeastwards, IMD said in a bulletin.
“The losses will be at three levels — loss to life and property because the storm was tremendous; loss to basic infrastructure, which will take months to leap back to normalcy, and thirdly, loss to livelihoods due to saline water intrusion and large-scale inundation. I have received reports of embankment breaks from Sagar Island, Ramganga, Hingalganj and a few other places. Many embankments are seeing overtopping of water because the rivers have swelled up, these will break in days,” said Tuhin Ghosh, director of the School of Oceanographic Studies at Jadavpur University.
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee said a task force constituted to assess the damage will meet on Thursday. She advised people in shelter homes not to step out for the next 12 days, saying there has been a “huge devastation”. “Bridges and embankments in the Sunderbans have been damaged,” she said.
Described by weather scientists as a very severe cyclonic storm bordering on an extremely severe cyclonic storm, Amphan packed winds with a speed of 155 to 165 kmph, gusting to 185 kmph. A storm is described as an extremely severe cyclone when wind speeds reach between 167 and 221 kmph. A super cyclone of the 1999 Odisha kind, which killed 9,000 people, packs a wind velocity of more than 222 kmph.
“If you consider Amphan’s intensity during its lifetime, then it is the most intense since the 1999 super cyclone. But the 1999 cyclone made landfall as a super cyclone; this one weakened marginally during landfall,” said Mohapatra.
IMD had forecast a storm surge of 4 to 5 metres above the astronomical tide that was expected to inundate low- lying areas of South and North 24 Parganas and parts of East Midnapore district during landfall. Extremely strong winds of 100 to 120 kmph lashed Kolkata, Howrah and Hooghly, according to IMD.
Experts said residents of the deltaic areas of the Sunderbans could face an impact on their livelihoods for years to come because of large-scale inundation and saline water intrusion onto their lands.
“Saline intrusion will make soil infertile and damage crops. The soil may not be suitable for agriculture for three to five years. After cyclone Aila (in 2009), there a layer of salt had settled on the soil,” Ghosh added.
Meteorologists and climate scientists had said on Monday the intensity of Amphan was 145 knots or 270 kmph. The wind speed makes it the strongest cyclone ever in Bay of Bengal, passing the 1999 Odisha cyclone’s wind speed of 260 kmph, tweeted meteorologist Eric Holthous, based on data from the US-based Joint Typhoon Warning Centre.
Roxy Mathew Koll, climate scientist at Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, said the Bay of Bengal recorded sea surface temperature of 32 to 34 degrees Celsius prior to the formation of cyclone Amphan. Record warming of the ocean surface may have led to very rapid intensification of Amphan from a category 1 to category 5 cyclone in just 18 hours.
Subol Maity, a resident of Rakshas Khali in South 24 Parganas, said thousands of mud-brick houses had been razed and that his family had lost everything — “ our farms, our homes, our cattle”. “I don’t think there is anything left to survive with,” he said.
Cyclone Amphan struck the country at a time it is struggling to control the spread of the coronavirus disease. Rescue workers in both Odisha and West Bengal said the fear of being infected by Covid-19 in cyclone shelters made many people refuse to be evacuated, with the authorities having to resort to force to move them to safety.
In West Bengal, some evacuees said they would rather die in their own houses than risk infection in cyclone shelters. “There were some people who refused to move to cyclone shelters. We first tried to convince them. When it didn’t work we used force,” said a block development officer in South 24 Parganas.
National Disaster Response Force chief SN Pradhan told a press conference in New Delhi that 20 teams of the federal force had already begun road clearing operations in Odisha while the 19 units deployed in West Bengal were shifting people to safety.
Quoting figures made available by the two states, Pradhan said over 500,000 people were evacuated in West Bengal and 158,000 in Odisha, where the rains and high-velocity winds is expected to weaken by late Wednesday night.