(Update 1: adds details)
New Delhi/Dhaka, May 20 (efe-epa).- More than three million people were evacuated to safer places in India and Bangladesh before one of the most powerful cyclones in decades made landfall on Wednesday amid warnings of potential widespread damage.
The coronavirus pandemic has further complicated the frantic evacuation as both the rescuers and the rescued need to follow precautions, including social distancing norms, to prevent the spread of the virus.
Bangladesh authorities said they feared a volunteer, who went missing ahead of the arrival of the cyclone Amphan, might have drowned during an evacuation mission when a boat capsized due to strong winds.
“One of our volunteers is missing. We fear he is dead. He went missing as his boat sank while he was taking people to shelter in Kalapara area of Patuakhali district,” said Ahmadul Haque, director, administration of the Cyclone Preparedness Program.
Haque said rescuers had so far evacuated nearly 2.4 million people from low-lying areas in the cyclone’s projected trail and housed them in 14,636 shelters spread across 19 districts in the country.
In India, National Disaster Response Force Director General SN Pradhan said more than 700,000 people from eastern Indian states of West Bengal and Odisha had been evacuated.
He said the cyclone had created a “fast-changing, transforming situation” and the authorities have deployed 41 teams in the two states for rescue and relief efforts.
“Our work, in terms of restoration and recovery, begins after the cyclone landfall. This is a long-haul process,” Pradhan told reporters in Delhi.
“All 20 teams in Odisha are on the ground. No one is on standby anymore. All teams have been called in.”
He said the force had deployed the other 21 disaster relief teams in West Bengal.
The cyclone started making landfall in India around 2.30 in the afternoon and will make a full touchdown in about four hours, India Meteorological Department (IMD) chief Mrutyunjay Mohapatra said.
He said Amphan began making landfall near the West Bengal’s Sundarbans, a massive mangrove forest area in the delta that is spread across India and Bangladesh.
The Sundarbans is a UNESCO world heritage site that houses rare and endangered species, including nearly 100 protected Bengal tigers.
Mohapatra said Sundarbans was “badly affected” and by evening, the cyclone was expected to hit the districts of 24 Parganas, Howrah, Hubli, and the state capital of Kolkata.
“We are expecting heavy downpour and up to 185 kmph (115 mph) windspeed by evening when the cyclone impacts Kolkata. East Midnapur and 24 Parganas are going to see the worst of it.”
In Kolkata, hundreds of trees lay uprooted and electric poles scattered on the roads as the city received heavy rainfall before the storm battered the East Indian coast.
Mohapatra said there could be widespread damage with temporary houses made of crude building material being particularly vulnerable.
The neighboring states of Assam and Meghalaya are also expected to receive heavy rainfall very soon, he said.
This is the most intense cyclone in the region since 1999 and comes amid the COVID-19 crisis.