Cyclone swamps parts of India, Bangladesh; evacuations keep death toll down

by Reuters
Thursday, 21 May 2020 08:45 GMT

People make their way to a safer place before Cyclone Amphan makes landfall in Gabura outskirts of Satkhira district, Bangladesh, May 20, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer

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Authorities in both countries managed to evacuate more than 3 million people, although some were reluctant to go to packed storm shelters due to fear of coronavirus infection

(Adds fresh details of damage, flooded mangrove forests)

By Ruma Paul and and Subrata Nagchoudhury

KOLKATA/DHAKA, May 21 (Reuters) - Rescue teams searched for survivors in eastern India and Bangladesh on Thursday, a day after the most powerful cyclone in over a decade devastated coastal villages, tore down power lines, and left large tracts of land under water.

The full extent of the casualties and damage to property inflicted by Cyclone Amphan would only be known once communications were restored, officials said.

While at least a dozen people died in the Indian state of West Bengal and ten in neighbouring Bangladesh, mass evacuations organised by authorities undoubtedly saved countless lives.

Most deaths were caused by trees uprooted by winds that gusted up to 185 km per hour (115 mph), and a storm surge of around five metres that inundated low-lying coastal areas when the cyclone barrelled in from the Bay of Bengal on Wednesday.

"I have never seen such a cyclone in my life. It seemed like the end of the world. All I could do was to pray... Almighty Allah saved us," Azgar Ali, 49, a resident of Satkhira district on the Bangladesh coast told Reuters.

Designated a super cyclone, Amphan has weakened since making landfall. Moving inland through Bangladesh, it was downgraded to a cyclonic storm on Thursday by the Indian weather office. And the storm was expected to subside into a depression later.

Mohammad Asaduzzaman, a senior police official in Satkhira, described the destruction Amphan left in its wake.

"Devastation is huge. Many villages are flooded. It tore off tin roofs, snapped power lines, and uprooted trees."

Concern was growing over flooding in the Sundarbans, an ecologically-fragile region straddling the Indian-Bangladesh border, best known for thick mangrove forests and its tiger reserve.

"The tidal surge submerged some part of the forest," said Belayet Hossain, a forest official on the Bangladesh side of the forest. "We have seen trees uprooted, the tin-roofs of the guard towers blown off," he said.

Over on the Indian side of the Sundarbans, a village official said embankments surrounding a low-lying island, where some 5,000 people live, had been washed away, and he had been unable to contact authorities for help.

"We have not been able inform them about anything since last night, the official, Sanjib Sagar, told Reuters,

MASS EVACUATIONS

Authorities in both countries managed to evacuate more than three million people, moving them to storm shelters before Amphan struck. But the evacuation effort was focused on communities that lay directly in the cyclone's path, leaving villages on the flanks still vulnerable.

Television images showed upturned boats on the shore, people wading through knee-deep water and buses crashed into each other. The airport in Kolkata, West Bengal's state capital, lay under water and several neighbourhoods in the city of 14 million people have had no electricity since the storm struck, according to residents.

Pradip Kumar Dalui, an official in the state's South 24 Parganas area, said that storm waters breached river embankments in several places, flooding over half a dozen villages, that were home for more than 100,000 people.

"Many mud houses have been destroyed because of the wind or fallen trees," Dalui told Reuters by telephone. Electricity lines and phone connections were down in many places, but so far no deaths had been reported in this area, he said.

The cyclone came at a time when the two countries are battling to stop the spread of the coronavirus, and some evacuees were initially reluctant to leave their homes for fear of possible infection in the packed storm shelters.

Cyclones frequently batter parts of eastern India and Bangladesh between April and December, often forcing the evacuations of tens of thousands and causing widespread damage.

(Additional reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal in New Delhi, Jatindra Dash in Bhubaneshwar, Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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