India and Bangladesh evacuated millions of people from the path of the most powerful storm in 20 years, which is expected to hit on Wednesday evening and has raised fears of extensive damage to houses and crops.
The authorities’ move to save lives was complicated by continuing efforts to curb the coronavirus pandemic and enforce social distancing.
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 kilometres per hour (115 miles per hour) – weakening from the equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane.
Al Jazeera’s Tanvir Chowdhury, reporting from Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, said the cyclone was expected to land on the South Asian nation’s southeastern coastal belt about 6pm local time.
He said 1.4 million people have been evacuated and put into shelter but at least 46,000 people remained in the clear line of danger on some of the islands in the coastal areas.
“There is accommodation for at least five million people and there is medical team, rescue operation team, coastguard and the navy have been put on alert and standby in the coastal areas,” he said.
“This would be one of the biggest cyclones so they are taking it very seriously.”
The Indian weather department forecast a storm surge of 10 to 16-foot (3-4 metre) waves – as high as a two-storey house – that could swamp mud dwellings along the coast, uproot communication towers and inundate roads and railway tracks.
There will be extensive damage to standing crops and plantations in the states of West Bengal and Odisha, 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 coronavirus. India has reported more than 100,000 cases with 3,163 deaths.
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.
Kolkata was battered by heavy rain and the muddy Hooghly River was rising under dark skies, while in the coastal resort of Digha, large waves were pounding the shore.
A Cyclone Preparedness Programme (CPP) volunteer uses a megaphone to urge residents to evacuate to shelters ahead of the expected landfall of cyclone Amphan in Khulna, Bangladesh on Tuesday [Kazi Shanto/ AFP]
Rohingya refugees vulnerable
In neighbouring Bangladesh, officials said the cyclone could set off tidal waves and heavy rainfall, unleashing floods.
It was expected to hit land between the districts of Chittagong and Khulna, just 150 km (93 miles) from refugee camps housing more than a million Rohingya in flimsy shelters.
The UN said food, tarpaulins and water purification tablets had been stockpiled, while authorities said the refugees would be moved to sturdier buildings if needed.
“We are fully prepared. But right now, there is no need to take them to cyclone shelters,” said Mahbub Alam Talukder, Bangladesh’s refugee commissioner.
Authorities in Bangladesh have also moved hundreds of Rohingya refugees living on a flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal to storm shelters as the super cyclone barrels down.
The eastern edge of the storm headed for Bangladesh and neighbouring India is expected to batter Bhasan Char island, where 306 Rohingya, members of a persecuted minority from Myanmar, were sent this month after being rescued from boats.
“Each block has a cyclone centre and they have been moved to the centre,” said Bimal Chakma, a senior official of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission.
The United Nations has called for the refugees to be moved to the mainland to join more than a million more who live in sprawling camps outside the town of Cox’s Bazar.
Bangladesh’s low-lying coast, home to 30 million people, and India’s east are regularly battered by cyclones that have claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in recent decades.
The eastern Indian state of Odisha was hit by a super cyclone that left nearly 10,000 dead in 1999, eight years after a typhoon, tornadoes and flooding killed 139,000 in Bangladesh. In 1970, Cyclone Bhola killed half a million people.