‘Super cyclone’ Amphan bears down on Bangladesh, India

Trees lie uprooted on a highway from heavy winds ahead of Cyclone Amphan landfall, at Chandbali on the Bay of Bengal coast in Orissa, India on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. (AP)
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Updated 20 May 2020

‘Super cyclone’ Amphan bears down on Bangladesh, India

  • Amphan is only the second ‘super cyclone’ to form in the northeastern Indian Ocean since records began
  • The storm could ‘cause large-scale and extensive damage’

KHULNA, Bangladesh: Several million people were taking shelter and praying for the best on Wednesday as the Bay of Bengal’s fiercest cyclone in decades roared toward Bangladesh and eastern India, with forecasts of a potentially devastating and deadly storm surge.
Authorities have scrambled to evacuate low lying areas in the path of Amphan, which is only the second “super cyclone” to form in the northeastern Indian Ocean since records began.
But their efforts have been hampered by the need to follow strict precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, with infection numbers still soaring in both countries.
“At least 50 people took shelter in my concrete-built house. They came last evening. We gave them food,” Abdur Rahim, a Bangladeshi shrimp farmer on the edge of the Sundarbans mangrove forest said.
“There is panic. The women are worried ... A few months ago, Cyclone Bulbul smashed our village, destroying at least 100 homes. We hope Allah will save us this time.”
Early Wednesday the vast weather system — visible from space — was 125 kilometers (80 miles) offshore with gusts up to 200 kilometers per hour (125 mph), the equivalent of a category three hurricane, the Indian Meteorological Department said.
It was expected to ease slightly but still pack a ferocious punch when it crosses the coasts of West Bengal state and neighboring Bangladesh on Wednesday “afternoon to evening” with gusts up to 185 kph.
Bangladeshi forecasters said it would hit around 6:00 p.m. (1200 GMT), with a potential storm surge up to five meters (15 feet).
The storm could “cause large-scale and extensive damage,” said the head of India’s weather office Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, with a surge of several meters.
Storm surges can force a wall of water to cascade several kilometers inland, and are often the biggest killers in any cyclone, typhoon or hurricane.
Sanjib Banerjee from West Bengal weather office said that parts of Kolkata could see “severe damage.” Early Wednesday the sky there was ominously grey. At the coast it was raining and the sea rough.
“We have mobilized more than 20,000 policemen, emergency workers and volunteers, boats and buses to evacuate around 300,000 people from coastal villages,” state premier Mamata Banerjee said.
“It’s a very difficult task when the state is combating the coronavirus pandemic,” she said.
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.
While the storms’ frequency and intensity have increased — a phenomenon blamed partly on climate change — deaths have fallen thanks to faster evacuations, better technology and more shelters.
But Bangladesh authorities still fear that Amphan will be the most powerful storm front since Cyclone Sidr devastated the country in 2007, killing about 3,500 people and causing billions of dollars in damage.
The country has been feverishly working to bring 2.2 million people to safety, while West Bengal was relocating 300,000 others.
The Catholic Relief Services (CRS) aid group said people faced “an impossible choice” of braving the cyclone by staying put, or risking coronavirus infection in a shelter.
Authorities in both countries said that they were using extra shelter space to reduce crowding, while also making face masks compulsory and providing extra soap and sanitizer.
“We are also keeping separate isolation rooms in the shelters for any infected patients,” Bangladesh’s junior disaster management minister Enamur Rahman said.
Although outside the predicted direct path of the storm, there are fears for the safety of almost a million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in southeastern Bangladesh — most living in vast camps and housed in flimsy and makeshift shacks.
The first coronavirus cases were reported there last week, and by Tuesday there were six confirmed infections.
The UN said emergency items such as food, tarpaulins and water purification tablets had been stockpiled, while authorities said the refugees would be moved to sturdier buildings like schools.
“Heavy rains, flooding (and) the destruction of homes and farmland, will increase the likelihood of the virus spreading, particularly in densely populated areas like the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar,” ActionAid said.
“It will also undoubtedly increase the number of lives and livelihoods already lost to this pandemic.”


Russia, China, Iran trying to meddle in US 2020 election, warn Intel officials

Updated 43 min 15 sec ago

Russia, China, Iran trying to meddle in US 2020 election, warn Intel officials

  • Russia accused of acting against Biden, while China opposes Trump
  • Trump claims Iran is also helping ensure he does not win a second term

WASHINGTON: US intelligence officials believe that Russia is using a variety of measures to denigrate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden ahead of the November election and that individuals linked to the Kremlin are boosting President Donald Trump’s reelection bid, the country’s counterintelligence chief said Friday in the most specific warning to date about the threat of foreign interference.
US officials also believe that China does not want Trump to win a second term and has accelerated its criticism of the White House, expanding its efforts to shape public policy in America and to pressure political figures seen as opposed to Beijing’s interests.
The statement from William Evanina is believed to be the most pointed declaration by the US intelligence community linking the Kremlin to efforts to get Trump reelected — a sensitive subject for a president who has rejected intelligence agency assessments that Russia tried to help him in 2016.
It also links Moscow’s disapproval of Biden to his role in shaping Obama administration policies supporting Ukraine, an important US ally, and opposing Russian leader Vladimir Putin. That assertion conflicts with the narrative advanced by Trump, who has made unsubstantiated claims that Biden’s actions in Ukraine were intended to help the business interests of his son, Hunter.
Evanina’s statement, three months before the election, comes amid criticism from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other congressional Democrats that the intelligence community has been withholding from the public specific intelligence information about the threat of foreign interference in American politics.
“The facts are chilling,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, wrote in an op-ed published Friday evening in The Washington Post. “I believe the American public needs and deserves to know them. The information should be declassified immediately.”
The latest intelligence assessment reflects concerns not only about Russia but China and Iran as well, warning that hostile foreign actors may seek to compromise election infrastructure, interfere with the voting process or call into question voting results. Despite those efforts, officials see it as unlikely that anyone could manipulate voting results in any meaningful way, Evanina said.
“Many foreign actors have a preference for who wins the election, which they express through a range of overt and private statements; covert influence efforts are rarer,” said Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence Security Center. “We are primarily concerned about the ongoing and potential activity by China, Russia and Iran.”
Concerns about election interference are especially acute following a wide-ranging effort by Russia to meddle in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf through both the hacking of Democratic emails and a covert social media campaign aimed at sowing discord among US voters. Trump has routinely resisted the idea that the Kremlin favored him in 2016, but the intelligence assessment released Friday indicates that unnamed Kremlin-linked actors are again working to boost his candidacy on social media and Russian television.
The White House responded to Friday’s news with a statement saying “the United States will not tolerate foreign interference in our electoral processes and will respond to malicious foreign threats that target our democratic institutions.”
In a separate statement, the Trump campaign said it didn’t want or need foreign assistance and said China and Iran were opposed to Trump because “he has held them accountable after years of coddling by politicians like Joe Biden.”
Tony Blinken, a senior adviser to Biden’s campaign, responded Friday that Trump “has publicly and repeatedly invited, emboldened, and even tried to coerce foreign interference in American elections. ... Joe Biden, on the other hand, has led the fight against foreign interference for years.”
Pelosi and Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, both California Democrats, said in a statement Friday that they were “pleased that Mr. Evanina heeded our call to make additional details public about Russia’s malign interference campaign.” But they also criticized him for naming Iran and China “as equal threats to our democratic elections.”
Democrats in Congress who have participated in recent classified briefings on the election interference threat have expressed alarm at what they have heard. They have urged the US intelligence community to make public some of their concerns, in part to avoid a repeat of 2016, when Obama administration officials were seen as slow and overly deliberate in their public discussion of active Russian measures in that year’s election.
When it comes to Russia this year, US intelligence officials assess that it is working to “denigrate” Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia “establishment” among his supporters, Evanina said. US officials believe that tracks Moscow’s criticism of Biden when he was vice president for his role in Ukraine policies and his support of opposition to Putin inside Russia.
The US statement called out by name Andriy Derkach, a pro-Russia Ukrainian lawmaker who has been active in leveling unsubstantiated corruption allegations against Biden and his son concerning Burisma, the Ukrainian natural gas company on whose board Hunter Biden sat. That effort has included publicizing leaked phone calls.
Democrats, including members of the Senate intelligence panel, have voiced concerns that an ongoing Republican probe into Hunter Biden and his work in Ukraine would parallel Russian efforts and amplify Russian disinformation. That investigation is being led by Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, the chairman of Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Though US officials allege that China has its own preference, the statement Friday did not directly accuse Beijing of election interference or taking action to prop up Biden.
Instead, the statement said, China views Trump as “unpredictable” and does not want to see him win reelection, Evanina said. China has been expanding its influence efforts ahead of the November election in an effort to shape US policy and pressure political figures it sees as against Beijing. The Trump administration’s relationship with China has taken a starkly more adversarial tone, including the closure last month of Beijing’s consulate in Houston and an executive order Thursday that banned dealings with the Chinese owners of consumer apps TikTok and WeChat,
“Although China will continue to weigh the risks and benefits of aggressive action, its public rhetoric over the past few months has grown increasingly critical of the current administration’s COVID-19 response, closure of China’s Houston consulate and actions on other issues,” Evanina wrote.
On Iran, the assessment said Tehran seeks to undermine US democratic institutions as well as Trump and divide America before the election.
“Iran’s efforts along these lines probably will focus on online influence, such as spreading disinformation on social media and recirculating anti-US content,” Evanina wrote. “Tehran’s motivation to conduct such activities is, in part, driven by a perception that President Trump’s re-election would result in a continuation of US pressure on Iran in an effort to foment regime change.”
During a panel discussion later Friday at the DEF CON hacker convention, federal cybersecurity officials were asked which foreign threat they considered most serious. “I don’t think I would say one is scarier than the other per se. Certainly some of these adversaries are at little bit more experienced,” said the National Security Agency’s election lead, David Imbordino.
“I couldn’t agree more,” said Cynthia Kaiser, the FBI’s deputy chief of analysis for national cyber threats. “If if you ask me what the biggest threat is, its the kind of constant drumbeat or influence campaigns that are going to make people feel like they are less confident in our (elections) system.”