Cyclone Amphan: Millions evacuated and fears for world's biggest refugee camp as 'largest-ever' storm nears India and Bangladesh coast

Storm has begun dumping rain along coastlines where up to 2.5 million people are being moved to safety

Adam Withnall
Wednesday 20 May 2020 07:07
Cyclone Amphan weakens into severe storm near coastline

Cyclone Amphan has begun battering the coastlines of India and Bangladesh with heavy rains and strong winds, with officials scrambling to evacuate as many people as possible before it makes landfall later today.

The storm is the most powerful ever recorded in the Bay of Bengal according to meteorologists, sustaining windspeeds of up to 270kph (167mph), and comes at a time when local emergency infrastructure is already stretched to breaking point by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Indian government says Amphan is likely to make landfall near the border between Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal at about 5.30pm local time (1pm BST), at which point it will have diminished to a Very Severe Cyclonic Storm with winds gusting to 180kph (112mph).

Bangladesh officials said they were attempting to evacuate 2.2 million people from coastal areas. West Bengal is evacuating 300,000, and the neighbouring state of Odisha said it had moved almost 150,000 people to shelters.

Videos posted on social media showed heavy rainfall along the coast and trees whipping back in the wind. Earlier posts showed people carrying belongings - and wearing face masks to protect themselves from Covid-19 - heading to storm shelters.

Between them, India and Bangladesh have more than 130,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, and there are concerns that the storm will put additional strain on medical and emergency services and potentially boost the virus's spread.

Dr Saleemul Haq from the Independent University of Bangladesh said that while Bangladesh has a strong network of cyclone warning systems and shelters, it will be almost impossible for the evacuated population to practise social distancing in such conditions.

Charities are particularly concerned for the fate of the sprawling, densely populated Rohingya refugee camps at Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh, the largest camp of its kind in the world housing almost a million refugees.

Oxfam said that while Cox's Bazar is not directly in Amphan's path, it is still "likely to be hit and are especially vulnerable given the cramped conditions and an increasing number of coronavirus cases" [in the camps].

"Cyclone Amphan is a crisis on top of a crisis," said Pankaj Anand, Oxfam India's humanitarian response director. "Many of the cyclone evacuation shelters are already being used as coronavirus quarantine centres or housing migrants who have returned to their coastal communities because of lockdown. People are worried there won’t be enough space in the shelters and that they might catch coronavirus in them."

The cyclone has already passed parallel to the coast of Odisha, uprooting trees and destroying some walls, said Bhabesh Mohanti, a teacher in Bhadrak district. "I just hope it passes soon, without destroying our town," he told the Associated Press.

Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, ordered the closure of shops and the streets to be cleared on Wednesday - effectively a one-day resumption of the tight coronavirus lockdown from which the city had only just started to emerge. Officials warned the city was likely to see some flooding, and that centuries-old buildings to the north of the city were at risk of collapse.

In Digha, the district of West Bengal where the storm was due to make landfall, Wednesday morning had already brought more than 44mm of rainfall.

Many in the seaside resort town felt they were forced to choose between risking the virus or the storm, said fisherman Debasis Shyamal.

"[People] have been home for weeks, and are afraid of going into a crowd [at shelters] where they could get infected," he said.

The cyclone is also occurring during the Islamic holy month Ramadan, and reports from Muslim-majority Bangladesh said many villagers were fasting all day Tuesday, then eating at night before heading for the shelters early Wednesday.

The region is no stranger to devastating cyclones, but scientists say the intensity of their wind speeds has increased due to climate change and warming in the region.

Scores died last year during Cyclone Fani, the largest cyclone to hit Odisha state since the turn of the century. Simon Wang, Professor of Climate, Utah State University, said we don't yet know whether last year's record storm activity in the Bay of Bengal was "an outlier year or a year that portends things to come".

"In our paper on Fani [in 2019], which was a terribly destructive cyclone, we noted that warming temperatures in the air and ocean surface have significantly intensified cyclones in the Bay of Bengal," he said. "And what we’re seeing now is that abnormally warm sea surface temperatures were present in the case of Amphan, too.”

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