Clouds loom over Kolkata as Cyclone Amphan barrels towards India’s eastern coast. (TOI photo)
NEW DELHI/KOLKATA: Weakened but still packing a deadly punch, cyclone Amphan will make landfall close to Sundarbans between Digha (West Bengal) and Hatiya Islands (Bangladesh) as an “extremely severe cyclonic storm” on Wednesday afternoon or evening, dumping heavy rain with howling winds at sustained winds of 155-165 kmph, gusting to 185 kmph.
“Amphan is the most intense and the first super cyclone since the 1999 Odisha cyclone. We are dealing with a multi-hazard scenario as the devastating winds are expected to cause extensive damage to structures, houses and trees,” said Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, director general of the India Meteorological Department.
Amphan, intensified as ‘super cyclonic storm’ on Monday and remained in that high wind speed situation in the deep sea till Tuesday morning. Subsequently, however, it slightly reduced in intensity and will make landfall as an “extremely severe cyclonic storm”. A cyclone with wind speed of over 220 kmph is categorised as a “super cyclonic storm”, while those with wind speed of 160 to 220 kmph are termed as an “extremely severe cyclonic storm”.
Its intensity will, however, be similar to Fani, the strongest tropical cyclone to strike India since the 1999 Odisha cyclone, that hit the eastern coast in May last year.
Keeping its devastating potential in mind, local authorities in both West Bengal and Odisha in coordination with the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) have already started evacuation exercise in vulnerable coastal districts.
The Bengal administration shifted around 3 lakh people from coastal areas, around 67% of them from South 24-Parganas and the rest from North 24-Parganas and East and West Midnapore, as the Kolkata Municipal Corporation identified vacant civic schools and community centres to be used as emergency shelters.
In Odisha, the Naveen Patnaik government on Tuesday decided against what it described as “reckless evacuation” of people, marking a change from its time-tested cyclone drill of large-scale movement of people to sturdy shelters along the coast.
“It is for the first time that we are having to face two disasters simultaneously. We are facing a dual challenge of ‘cyclone in the time of Covid-19’. We are taking action according to the enormity of this challenge,” said the NDRF chief S N Pradhan.
Pradhan noted that the current evacuation exercise is being done while adhering to social distancing norms. “A cyclone shelter where normal capacity is 1,000 can accommodate only 500 people due to need for physical distancing,” he said outlining the challenges presented by the current situation.
The NDRF has already deployed its 19 teams in West Bengal and 15 in Odisha in consultation with state authorities.
“Based on our experience during cyclone Fani, all the teams are equipped with tree and pole cutters for post-landfall restoration, if the need arises. In view of the prevailing Covid-19 scenario, all teams are equipped with personal protective equipment (PPE),” said Pradhan.
Amid alerts on Amphan and its potential damaging effect in West Bengal and Odisha, cabinet secretary, Rajiv Gauba, on Tuesday held a third meeting of the National Crisis Management Committees (NCMC) to review the preparedness of different agencies. He was told during the briefing that officials from departments of power and telecommunications were also deployed on the ground to deal with the post-landfall situation.
As part of the evacuation exercise, the district administration in West Bengal has prepared schools and panchayat bhawans as cyclone shelters. Officials in south 24 Parganas, however, noted that the social distancing norms would take a hit during evacuation as many emergency shelters had been turned into quarantine centres, where several people had been staying in isolation.
Odisha special relief commissioner Pradeep Kumar Jena said a conscious decision was taken not to evacuate people lock, stock and barrel in areas likely to be affected. “We have asked the district collectors to check and cross-check whether evacuation is necessary for individual households in the vulnerable areas and then take a call,” the senior bureaucrat said.
Although the government has prepared 600 cyclone shelters and more than 7,000 other concrete buildings that can accommodate 12 lakh people, the actual evacuation will be of around 60,000 to a maximum of one lakh people, Jena said. Around 35,000 people were evacuated by 3 pm on Tuesday.
“It’s a complex problem. We have evacuated people for many cyclones. But this is the first time we are facing a situation when we have to shift people out of their houses when they have been advised to stay home,” Jena said.