SATKHIRA: India and Bangladesh began a massive clean-up Thursday after the fiercest cyclone since 1999 killed at least 84 people, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.
Cyclone Amphan flattened houses, uprooted trees, blew off roofs and toppled electricity pylons, while a storm surge inundated coastal villages and wrecked shrimp farms vital to the local economy.
The United Nations office in Bangladesh estimates 10 million people were affected, and some 500,000 people may have lost their homes.
But the death toll was far lower than the many thousands killed in previous cyclones — a result of improved weather forecasting and better response plans.
The disaster has raised fears, however, that overcrowding in storm shelters will exacerbate the spread of coronavirus.
India’s West Bengal reported 72 deaths — including 14 in the capital Kolkata — with state premier Mamata Banerjee saying: “I haven’t seen a disaster of this magnitude.”
In Bangladesh, the official death toll was 12.
Improved weather forecasting meant Bangladesh was able to move some 2.4 million people into shelters or out of the storm’s direct path, while India evacuated some 650,000.
At least 10 million people were still without power on Thursday afternoon in the worst-hit districts of Bangladesh, said Moin Uddin, the head of the rural electricity board.
“Huge number of electricity poles fell down after it was lashed by the cyclone, or they were hit by huge number of fallen trees. Transformers, conductors and meters were also destroyed,” he told AFP.
Residents of Kolkata woke to flooded streets, with the city’s signature yellow taxis up to their bonnets in water in one neighborhood.
“The impact of Amphan is worse than coronavirus,” premier Banerjee said. “Thousands of mud huts have been levelled, trees uprooted, roads washed away and crops destroyed.”
Other officials said they were waiting for damage reports from the Sundarbans, the vast mangrove area that is home to endangered Bengal tigers and which bore the brunt of the storm.
“We are particularly concerned over some wild animals. They can be washed away during a storm surge in high tide,” forest chief Moyeen Uddin Khan told AFP.
The cyclone weakened as it moved north through Bangladesh but still unleashed heavy rain and fierce winds in Cox’s Bazar, the district which houses about one million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.
The UN said that the effect in the vast camps of flimsy shacks appeared to be “fairly minimal.”
The area most affected by Amphan, the first “super cyclone” to form over the Bay of Bengal since 1999, was the Satkhira district of south-west Bangladesh.
There a storm surge — a wall of ocean water that is often one of the main killers in major weather systems — roared inland and destroyed embankments protecting villages and shrimp farms.
In the village of Purba Durgabati, hundreds of locals worked through the night to mend a breach in a levee, but to no avail. Some 600 homes and thousands of shrimp farms were hit.
“My home has gone under water. My shrimp farm is gone. I don’t know how I am going to survive,” Omar Faruq, 28, told AFP.
“The coronavirus has already taken a toll on people. Now the cyclone has made them paupers,” said local councillor Bhabotosh Kumar Mondal.
The last super cyclone in 1999 left nearly 10,000 dead in India’s Odisha state, eight years after a typhoon, tornadoes and flooding killed 139,000 in Bangladesh.
This time, as during a cyclone in Odisha last year, the human cost was greatly lessened thanks to the evacuations, said Enamur Rahman, Bangladesh’s junior minister for disaster management.
“Only several people died. The majority of them ventured out to collect fallen mangoes during the storm,” Rahman told AFP.
Natural disaster expert Nayeem Wahra, at the Disaster Forum think-tank, said the storm also lost some of its potency over the Bay of Bengal before it made landfall .
“The storm surge was not powerful or high enough to cause extensive damage to lives or properties,” Wahra told AFP.
“Bangladesh was largely spared.”
Packing people into shelters, however, raised the risk of coronavirus spreading, with cases still surging in both India and Bangladesh.
Authorities said they extended shelters to reduce crowding, while also insisting everyone wore face masks.
Many, however, chose to stay at home and face the storm rather than risk being infected.
“We fear the cyclone but we also fear the coronavirus,” said Sulata Munda, a villager in Bangladesh who refused to go to a shelter.