India and Bangladesh evacuated around half a million people out of the way of the most powerful storm in a decade ahead of its landfall on Wednesday amid fears of heavy damage to houses and crops and disruption of road, rail and power links.
The authorities’ task to save lives was complicated by ongoing efforts to curb the coronavirus pandemic and enforce social distancing to avoid a surge of infections. Many thousands of migrant workers are on the roads trying to get home from big cities after a nationwide lockdown destroyed their livelihoods.
Approaching from the Bay of Bengal, super cyclone Amphan was expected to hit the coast of eastern India and southern Bangladesh with winds gusting up to 185 kmh (115 mph) – the equivalent of a category 5 hurricane.
The Indian weather department forecast a storm surge of 10 to 16-foot waves – as high as a two-storey house – that could swamp mud dwellings along the coast, uproot communication towers and inundate roads and rail tracks.
There will be extensive damage to standing crops and plantations in the states of West Bengal and Odisha, while large boats and ships could get torn from their moorings, the weather service said in a bulletin late on Tuesday.
Authorities were hastily repurposing quarantine facilities for the looming cyclone soon after easing the world’s biggest lockdown against the virus, which in India is reported to have infected more than 100,000 people and killed 3,163.
Railway officials diverted away from the cyclone’s path a number of trains carrying thousands of migrant workers to eastern states from the capital New Delhi where they had lost their jobs due to coronavirus lockdowns.
“We have just about six hours left to evacuate people from their homes and we also have to maintain social distancing norms,” disaster management official S.G. Rai told Reuters.
“The cyclone could wash away thousands of huts and standing crops.”
About 300,000 people had been moved to storm shelters, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee said. The state capital Kolkata lies near the cyclone’s path and there was concern about people living in about 1,500 old, dilapidated buildings.