Cyclone Amphan, the most powerful cyclone of the 21st century formed in the Bay of Bengal, has ravaged entire regions in India and Bangladesh. In places, such as in Calcutta, he beat for nearly six hours. If the death toll could be contained, the property damage is considerable.
Hundreds of flooded villages, lost crops and homes destroyed by the tens of thousands: The passage of Cyclone Amphan on Thursday (May 21, 2020) left scenes of “unheard-of devastation” in India and Bangladesh, where it killed at least 95 people, according to a latest death toll. The United Nations office in Bangladesh has estimated that 10 million people have been affected and some 500,000 are homeless.
Despite the extensive damage caused on Wednesday by the cyclone, the most powerful to form in the Bay of Bengal in the 21st century, the loss of life appears to have been contained. Until recently, the most severe cyclones sometimes caused thousands of deaths in this part of the world. India has recorded 72 deaths in the state of West Bengal and Bangladesh has reported 23 people dead on its territory, according to official reports still provisional on Thursday.
More than 3 million people evacuated by security
The two South Asian nations, which had been disrupted by cyclone management and effective weather monitoring systems, had evacuated more than three million people to shelters as a precaution. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is due to report on the damage in West Bengal and Odisha state on Friday. “Everything will be done to help those affected,” he said on Twitter.
In the city of Calcutta, water stagnated Thursday in flooded streets. Trees and poles that fell to the ground sometimes blocked the passage, the Internet and mobile phone services remained disrupted. When the cyclone hit the metropolis of 15 million people for nearly six hours on Wednesday night, “it was terrifying and we thought our end had come,” Susanta De, a 40-year-old bank employee, told AFP. “There was only the howl of the wind and the sounds of broken windows,” he described, “every second seemed to last an hour.”
“I’ve never seen a disaster of this magnitude”
Appearing this weekend off the coast of India, Amphan (pronounced “um-pun”) made landfall late Wednesday south of Calcutta, accompanied by winds around 165 km/h and torrential rain. In the Bangladeshi town of Buri Goalini, one of the hardest hit, “the cyclone did not kill people, but it destroyed our livelihoods,” Bhabotosh Kumar Mondal told AFP. This official of the municipality describes “a wake of unheard-of devastation”. The same observation on the other side of the border in India: “I have never seen a disaster of this magnitude,” Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal’s chief minister, told reporters.
By cutting down power poles, cutting cables, and destroying transformers, the cyclone caused power cuts for 15 million Bangladeshis. As of Thursday morning, 10 million of them were still without power. A storm surges – a sudden rise in water generated by the cyclone – sometimes four meters high submerged part of the coastline and brought streams of saltwater into the villages.
In the Bangladeshi village of Purba Durgabati, hundreds of residents battled the elements all night against the elements to try to consolidate the protecting their locality. But the rise of the river pulverized it for nearly two kilometers and flooded 600 homes. “My house is underwater. My shrimp farm is gone. I don’t know how I’m going to survive,” said Omar Faruq, a 28-year-old resident.
The most powerful cyclone in the Bay of Bengal in the 21st century
On Thursday, Cyclone Amphan weakened its northward advance to the point of being downgraded to a simple tropical depression. It had reached Category 4 out of 5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale on Monday, with winds of 200 to 240 km/h. It is the most powerful cyclone to be born in the Bay of Bengal since 1999. That year, a cyclone killed 10,000 people in Odisha, India.
Countries in the region have learned the lessons of the devastating cyclones of previous decades: they have built thousands of shelters for the population and implemented rapid evacuation policies. However, the coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally complicated their task this year. To prevent the spread of the virus, the authorities had called on the displaced to respect physical distance in shelters and to wear masks. In practice, however, these precautionary measures have been little respected, AFP journalists found.