India and Bangladesh: while Cyclone Amphan accumulates suffering in coronavirus-affected communities, thousands of people remain homeless

A woman carries a child through heavy rain as they evacuate a slum in Kolkata, India, ahead of Cyclone Amphan on Wednesday, May 20.
Amphan, who was the maximum powerful cyclone never recorded in the Gulf of Bengal before it weakened, ripped houses, tore trees, washed away bridges and left large, mainly rural areas without energy or communications.

The state of the Prime Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, said at least 12 people died in eastern India, with a Howrah district girl killed after a wall collapsed inside her home.

Large-scale evacuation efforts across India and neighboring Bangladesh appear to have saved many lives, but it may take days to realize all the deaths, injuries and damage caused by the cyclone. Fallen debris has made many roads impassable and heavy rains continue to fall in the hard-hit areas.

Disastrous teams worked overnight and until Thursday morning in the Indian states of West Bengal and Odisha, clearing trees and other debris from the streets.

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

Sunderbans are an ecologically fragile group of flat islands scattered across India and Bangladesh, known for mangrove forests and rare wildlife, including the endangered Bengal tiger.

“The maximum impact, as expected, was seen there,” said Pradhan.

Four of the least affected districts in the state could be up and running in 4-6 days, and some coastal parts of Odisha are expected to re-enter later tonight, he said.

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

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In Calcutta, the largest city on the cyclone’s direct route and home to 14 million people, Pradhan said many trees were uprooted and “the city has never seen such strong winds”.

Cyclone Amphan is a bigger disaster than the coronavirus epidemic, head of government Banerjee said in a press conference Wednesday.

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

In areas hit by the cyclone, many villagers live in temporary houses with thatched or tin roofs, which were easily blown away by strong winds.

In Bangladesh, almost all coastal districts have been severely affected by Cyclone Amphan, according to Ranjit Kumar Sen, an official from the Ministry of Disaster Management and Disaster Relief in Bangladesh.

Sen said the country has not yet reported an official death toll because authorities are still collecting information from its various remote offices. But he said the damage along the coast was “enormous”.

Several poorly maintained dams and dams broke even before the hurricane landed, causing extensive flooding in parts of the country.

Snigdha Chakraborty, with charitable Catholic Relief Services, said the country has seen storm waves of up to 4.5 feet in height, flooding homes across the country.

Cyclone Amphan landed on the east coast of India, near the island of Sagar in West Bengal, around 17:00. Wednesday local time (7.30 ET) and started following the route north to Calcutta, with wind speeds of up to 160 km / h (100 mph), according to data from the United States Joint Typhoon Warning Center.

Amphan weakened in the equivalent of an Atlantic tropical storm while crossing the border between West Bengal and Bangladesh on Thursday morning, but is still charging strong winds up to 110 kilometers per hour (68 mph). The system is expected to continue to weaken over the next 24 hours as it travels northeast.

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The next danger will come from heavy rain, which could lead to sudden floods across the region until Thursday morning.

Mass evacuations and coronaviruses

An ambitious evacuation organized by India and Bangladesh has seen around 3 million people safely transferred to the two countries, according to regional authorities.

The relief operation came despite India and Bangladesh remaining under strict blockade orders due to the coronavirus. The virus, which continues to spread in both countries, has complicated the response to emergencies, as rescue teams work to save people and at the same time protect them from the risk of Covid-19.

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

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

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

“Social distancing is definitely a great concept, but applying it as rigorously as possible in a disaster situation may not always be possible,” he said.

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In West Bengal of India, which endured the heaviest winds of the cyclone, around 500,000 people were temporarily housed in storm shelters, according to authorities, while in Bangladesh the government said it had evacuated 2.4 million people in addition to about 40,000 cattle.

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

It is not known when many of those people will be able to return home. Bangladeshi Oxfam director Dipankar Datta said Wednesday that thousands of makeshift homes in Bangladesh had been eradicated due to the cyclone.

In what is probably a small glimmer of hope, the Catholic Relief Services Chakraborty has not been reported to date any serious harm in the sprawling refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar, which are home to nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees and had been a source of concern to help workers after Covid-19 cases were identified last week.

Some weak shelters have been damaged by the storm and now need to be repaired, he said.

Although it is feared that storm rainfall – although it caused the landing on the other side of Bangladesh – may still cause landslides and floods in the fields.

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

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