Cyclone Amphan, the strongest storm ever recorded in the Bay of Bengal, barrelled into India's eastern coastline on Wednesday. As the powerful storm made landfall in neighboring India, Bangladesh reported its first death: The Bangladesh Red Crescent said a volunteer drowned when their boat capsized as they raced to evacuate villagers from a coastal community.
Heavy rain and high winds started lashing India's West Bengal and Odisha states Tuesday night as the cyclone approached. By Wednesday morning sustained wind speeds had picked back up to over 100 miles per hour, and a storm surge was predicted to reach as high as 16 feet.
Amphan was as strong as a Category 3 hurricane when it made landfall on India's coastline. It had been expected to deliver a direct blow to India's Bengal region and the Hatiya Islands in Bangladesh later Wednesday afternoon.
India closed the airport in Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal state, which was bearing the brunt of the storm, until Thursday morning. Train services, which were already limited due to the coronavirus lockdown, were also stopped in the region. The government warned people against venturing out and to be wary of flying objects due to the high winds.
A storm surge was expected to flood the low-lying coastal areas in the Bengal region, which straddles India and Bangladesh's coastlines, India's Meteorological Department said.
Millions of people were evacuated in India and Bangladesh. About 350,000 people were evacuated from coastal communities to shelters on the Indian side of the border alone before the storm hit.
Neighboring Odisha state in India had evacuated about 150,000 people. Residents were being evacuated to cyclone shelters where officials said social distancing and other anti-coronavirus measures were being observed.
India deployed more than 40 disaster response teams to areas in the path of the cyclone. Teams from the Army, Navy and Air Force were also on standby.
The U.S. Pacific Disaster Center estimated that up to 33.6 million people in India and 5.3 million people in Bangladesh could be exposed to cyclonic winds from Amphan.
Coronavirus compounds the problem
Bangladesh evacuated about 2 million people to more than 12,000 cyclone shelters, and while social distancing was the goal, given the coronavirus pandemic, it was presenting a huge challenge.
Amphan made landfall west of Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh, where the world's biggest refugee camp houses more than 1 million Rohingya Muslim refugees. No evacuations were carried out there ahead of the storm, but aid agencies were standing by with rescue and relief teams.
"There is limited space in existing evacuation shelters and people who have been on coronavirus lockdown might hesitate to leave their less-sturdy homes to go to a central — and possibly crowded — shelter," said Snigdha Chakraborty of the Catholic Relief Services (CRS), who is coordinating the charity's response in both the Rohingya refugee camps and in coastal areas dealing with the storm.
Walter Mwasaa, acting country director for the non-profit group CARE in Bangladesh, has more than 350 people working alongside the government to facilitate evacuations and emergency relief operations in the country.
He told CBS News that while Bangladesh looked set to avoid the high winds from Amphan, "we are concerned about high tides bringing ocean water into the homes and farm lands, making the soil saline and infertile."
He said that while there are about 12,000 shelters available, he's "concerned about the spaces the people are sharing at the shelters, like toilets. Social distancing is not fully achievable."
Amphan is only the second super cyclone to form over the Bay of Bengal in two decades. In 1999, a super cyclone killed about 10,000 people as it slammed into India's Odisha state.
"Since then better technology and government preparation have been able to significantly reduce casualties," said CBS News meteorologist and climate specialist Jeff Berardelli, noting that the majority of the world's most deadly cyclones occur in the Bay of Bengal region.
First published on May 20, 2020 / 6:37 AM
© 2020 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.