SEVERAL million people battened down on Wednesday as the outer edges of the fiercest cyclone in decades rattled Bangladesh and eastern India, potentially bringing widespread destruction and misery in its wake.
As the eye of Amphan fast approached, the Bangladeshi Red Crescent reported the first death, after a volunteer drowned while moving villagers to shelter when strong winds capsized a boat.
Authorities have scrambled to evacuate low-lying areas in the storm’s projected trail of destruction, but their task is complicated by the need to follow precautions to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
“There is panic,” said Abdur Rahim, a Bangladeshi shrimp farmer on the edge of the Sundarbans mangrove forest, which was expected to bear the full brunt of the impact.
“A few months ago Cyclone Bulbul smashed our village, destroying at least 100 homes. We hope Allah will save us this time.”
Amphan is only the second “super cyclone” to form over the Bay of Bengal since records began, and the first since 1999.
At 3:00 pm (0930 GMT) the centre of the awesome vortex visible from space roared 65 kilometres (40 miles) offshore. The weather department said that it had begun to make landfall, a process forecast to last four hours.
Gusts on land of 185 kilometres per hour (115 mph) were predicted, the equivalent of a Category Three hurricane, with a storm surge of several metres, forecasters said.
Such walls of water can cascade several kilometres inland, and are often the main killers in any cyclone, typhoon or hurricane.
The Indian met office warned of possible flying objects, “extensive” damage to communications and power lines, and trees being ripped out of the ground.
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.
“Scores of trees and electric poles have been uprooted,” hotel owner Partha Tripathi told AFP by phone.
– Regular victims –
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 1999 super cyclone left nearly 10,000 dead in Odisha, eight years after a typhoon, tornadoes and flooding killed 139,000 in Bangladesh. In 1970, half a million perished in Cyclone Bhola.
While the storms’ frequency and intensity have increased — 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 killed about 3,500 people and causing billions of dollars in damage in 2007.
Enamur Rahman, Bangladesh’s junior minister for disaster management, told AFP that 2.4 million people and over half a million livestock had been brought to safety.
India has evacuated more than 650,000 in West Bengal and Odisha.
Because of coronavirus, authorities were using extra shelter space to reduce crowding, while also making face masks compulsory and setting aside isolation rooms.
Infection numbers are still soaring in both countries.
Sulata Munda, a tribal villager in Bangladesh, said she and fellow villagers had decided not to go to a shelter.
“We fear the cyclone, but we also fear the coronavirus,” the mother of four told AFP.
At a school in the coastal town of Dacope where more than 200 locals were sheltered, masks were in short supply.
“The room is already packed and maintaining social distancing is impossible,” said Rumki Khatun, 25, clutching her baby son.
Nearby hundreds of people were trying to reinforce a creaky river dam first. Local official Sheikh Abdul Kader said that if it broke, up to 50,000 people would be marooned.
“The dam must be protected,” he said.
– Rohingya refugee fears –
Although outside Amphan’s predicted path, there are fears for the almost one million Rohingya refugees in southeastern Bangladesh — most living in flimsy, makeshift shacks.
The first coronavirus cases were reported in the teeming camps last week, and by Tuesday there were six confirmed infections.
The UN said food, tarpaulins and water purification tablets were stockpiled, while authorities said the refugees would be moved to sturdier buildings if needed.
“We are fully prepared,” said Mahbub Alam Talukder, Bangladesh’s refugee commissioner.
There were also concerns for hundreds of Rohingya thought to be out at sea in rickety boats that have been denied entry by Thailand and Malaysia in recent weeks because of coronavirus restrictions.
“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.”