More than 80 killed in India and Bangladesh as Cyclone Amphan heaps misery on coronavirus-hit areas

Kolkata CNN  — 

More than 80 people have been killed and thousands more left homeless after Cyclone Amphan slammed into coastal towns and cities in India and Bangladesh on Wednesday afternoon.

Authorities are now racing to provide relief efforts in communities already stricken by the coronavirus, hampered in many areas by heavy rains and fallen debris that has made roads impassible.

Large-scale evacuation efforts appear to have saved many lives, but it could take days to realize the full extent of the deaths, injuries and damage from the cyclone.

Amphan — which was the most powerful cyclone ever recorded in the Bay of Bengal before it weakened — ripped apart homes, tore down trees, washed away bridges and left large predominately rural areas without power or communications.

At least 72 people died in West Bengal state, including 15 in the city of Kolkata, the state’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said Thursday. Among them was a young girl killed after a wall collapsed inside her home in Howrah district.

“I have never seen such disaster,” Banerjee told reporters. “All areas have faced destruction. Nothing is left.”

In neighboring Bangladesh, 10 people have been confirmed dead, according to the governmental Health Emergency Operations Center. Among those killed was a 57-year-old Red Crescent volunteer in Barisal who drowned when attempting to help others to safety, the Red Crescent Society of Bangladesh said.

Disaster teams worked throughout the night and into Thursday morning in India’s West Bengal and Odisha states, clearing trees and other debris from roads.

A man salvages items from his house damaged by Cyclone Amphan in Midnapore, West Bengal, on May 21, 2020.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi acknowledged the devastation caused by the cyclone in a series of tweets on Thursday, writing, “No stone will be left unturned in helping the affected.”

“The entire nation stands in solidarity with West Bengal,” he wrote. “My thoughts are with the people of Odisha as the state bravely battles the effects of Cyclone Amphan.”

Banerjee said that she would appeal to the central government in New Delhi for help and ask Modi to visit the stricken area on the Bay of Bengal.

No deaths have been reported yet in the neighboring coastal state of Odisha, despite wind and storm surges causing heavy damage, according to the government there.

Sunderbans islands ‘pulverized’

S.N. Pradhan, director-general of India’s National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF), said the worst of the damage is concentrated in two of West Bengal’s coastal districts and that the Sunderbans had been “pulverized” by the cyclone.

The Sunderbans are an ecologically fragile cluster of low-lying islands spread across India and Bangladesh, known for mangrove forests and rare wildlife, including the endangered Bengal tiger.

“Maximum impact, as expected has been seen there,” Pradhan said.

Four of the state’s least affected districts could be up and running in four to six days, and some coastal parts of Odisha are expected to be back up by this evening, he said.

“People have started moving out of shelters to assess the damage to their homes. Some have even started repairing their damaged homes,” Pradhan said.

In Kolkata, the biggest city in the direct path of the cyclone and home to 14 million people, Pradhan said that a lot of trees had been uprooted and “the city has never seen such high winds.”

Cyclone Amphan is a disaster bigger than the coronavirus outbreak, the state’s chief minister Banerjee said at a news conference Wednesday.

“The whole of the southern part of the state has been affected. We are shocked,” the chief minister said. “The cyclone has affected the electricity supply and destroyed many houses, bridges and embankments.”

In the areas affected by the cyclone, many villagers live in temporary homes with thatched or tin roofs, which were easily swept away in the powerful winds.

In Bangladesh, nearly every coastal district has been seriously affected by Cyclone Amphan, according to Ranjit Kumar Sen, an official at the Bangladesh Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief.

Sen said that the damage along the coast was “huge.” Among the 10 killed in the country, five people were in Barisal state – including the Red Crescent volunteer – four in Khuna, and one in Chittagong.

Several poorly maintained dams broke down even before the cyclone made landfall, causing extensive flooding in parts of the country.

Snigdha Chakraborty, with charity Catholic Relief Services, said the country saw storm surges as high as 15 feet (4.5 meters), inundating houses throughout the country.

Cyclone Amphan made landfall on India’s east coast, near Sagar Island in West Bengal, at around 5 p.m. local time Wednesday (7.30 a.m. ET) and began tracking north toward Kolkata, with wind speeds of up to 160 kph (100 mph), according to data from the US Joint Typhoon Warning Center.

Amphan weakened into the equivalent of an Atlantic tropical storm as it crossed the border between West Bengal and Bangladesh Thursday morning, but is still packing strong winds of up to 110 kph (68 mph). The system is expected to continue weakening over the next 24 hours as it travels northeast.

The next danger will come from the heavy rain, which could lead to flash flooding across the region through Thursday morning.

Mass evacuations and coronavirus

An ambitious evacuation mounted by India and Bangladesh saw an estimated 3 million people moved to safety across the two countries, according to regional authorities.

The relief operation came despite India and Bangladesh remaining under strict lockdown orders due to the coronavirus. The virus, which continues to spread through both countries, has complicated the emergency response, as relief teams grapple with how to get people to safety while also protecting them against the risk of Covid-19.

India passed more than 100,000 confirmed infections earlier this week, according to Johns Hopkins University, and recorded its largest single-day spike on Wednesday with 5,611 new cases. Meanwhile, Bangladesh’s infection count is rapidly rising, with more than 1,300 new cases on Sunday, its biggest rise to date. In total, the country has recorded 26,738 confirmed infections, according to Johns Hopkins.

Police officers carry a disabled man to a safer place following his evacuation from a slum area in Kolkata, India.

In Odisha, where more than 150,000 people were evacuated, a total of 211 of the state’s 809 permanent cyclone shelters were being used as Covid-19 quarantine centers.

Pradeep Jena, special relief commissioner for Odisha state, said emergency services had to balance saving lives from the cyclone with saving lives from the coronavirus. In evacuation centers, Jena said they were trying to keep the elderly and pregnant women separate from the rest of the population and were working hard to obtain adequate soap.

“Social distancing is definitely a very good concept but enforcing it in the strictest possible manner in a disaster situation may not always be possible,” he said.

In India’s West Bengal, which bore the brunt of the cyclone’s winds, about 500,000 people were temporarily housed in storm shelters, according to authorities, while in Bangladesh the government said they had evacuated 2.4 million people as well as about 40,000 livestock animals.

People gather at a cyclone center for protection before Cyclone Amphan made  landfall in Gabura, on the outskirts of Satkhira district, Bangladesh May 20.

It’s unknown when many of those people will be able to return home. Bangladesh Oxfam director, Dipankar Datta, said Wednesday that thousands of makeshift homes in Bangladesh had been uprooted due to the cyclone.

In what is likely to be one small glimmer of hope, Catholic Relief Services’ Chakraborty there had been no major damage reported so far in sprawling refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, which are home to nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees and had been a source of concern to aid workers after Covid-19 cases were identified there last week.

Some weak shelters were damaged in the storm and now need to be repaired, she said.

Though there is concern that the precipitation from the storm – though it made landfall on the other side of Bangladesh – could still cause landslides and flooding in the camps.

Salman Saeed and Abir Mahmud in Bangladesh, and CNN’s Swati Gupta, Rebecca Wright, Brandon Miller, Michael Guy, Joshua Berlinger, Ben Westcott and Angela Dewan contributed to this article.