Cyclone Amphan: Evacuees And COVID-19 Quarantined Crammed Inside Same Buildings

by GoNews Desk 3 years ago Views 2172

Thousands Evacuated As Cyclone Amphan Approaches I
By Joydeep Gupta, Zobaidur Rahman/

The West Bengal government evacuated over 200,000 residents of coastal villages as the extremely severe Cyclone Amphan moved north by northeast parallel to India’s east coast on Wednesday morning. It is expected to make landfall near the mouth of the Hooghly river at the western edge of the Sundarbans later on Wednesday. Flowing past Kolkata, the Hooghly is the westernmost distributary of the Ganga.

The Bangladesh government was reported to be evacuating an estimated two million people at the same time. Amphan is forecast to move inland after landfall instead of moving along the coast. But the previous Cyclone Bulbul that hit the same coast last November had changed direction and moved parallel to the shoreline from west to east, India to Bangladesh. So the authorities in Bangladesh are taking no chances.

At 8.30 am on Wednesday, the wind intensity near the centre of Amphan was 170-180 kilometres per hour (kmph), gusting to 200 kmph, according to the India Meteorological Department (IMD). Heavy rainfall had started along coastal Odisha and West Bengal. The IMD has forecast that the rainfall will spread as far inland as eastern Uttar Pradesh and northern Bihar,

The met office forecast that the wind intensity will be 155-165 kmph gusting to 185 kmph when Cyclone Amphan crosses the coast. That is serious enough to bring down trees and overhead electrical wires, take tin roofs off mud huts and maybe collapse the huts altogether. India’s National Disaster Response Force is on hand with tree-cutting equipment – among others – so that fallen branches can be removed easily and roads can be reopened quickly once the cyclone passes.

All eyes are now on the exact time of the landfall. It will be low tide if much of Cyclone Amphan crosses the coast by 5.30 pm on Wednesday, and the damage will be minimised. But if landfall is delayed till 8.30 pm, it will coincide with the high tide and cause a devastating storm surge. IMD has forecast that in Bhangar-1 block of South 24 Parganas district in West Bengal, the waves can be as much as 4.7 metres higher than usual, and saline water can cause inundation up to 15 kilometres, not just from the coast but also from the rivers and creeks that meet the coast.

Even in Basirhat block of North 24 Parganas district, relatively far from the coast, the forecast says the waves can be four metres higher than usual, and the inundation can spread around 10 km. For Diamond Harbour on the way to Kolkata up the Hooghly, waves can be up to 3.5 metres higher than usual, and inundation in the relatively lower area can go up to 15 km from the river.

Apart from the damage caused by the waves, such inundation would mean economic ruin for hundreds of thousands of people, as salt water would kill their crops, all the fish they rear in freshwater ponds and render their farmland infertile for years.

The infection risk

Right now, the West Bengal government has moved the evacuees into the same shelters where hundreds of people are already quarantined to prevent Covid-19 infection – in college and school buildings, Panchayat (local government) offices, health centres and so on.

Officials overseeing the evacuation said everyone had been checked for fever before being let into the shelters, all had been given masks, and hand sanitisers were being used regularly. But they admitted that it was impossible to maintain a distance of three feet around each person – the minimum distance enjoined to prevent the spread of the ongoing pandemic.

This is the area to which thousands of migrant workers have returned when they lost their jobs all over India due to the lockdown forced by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a local official said, “There is no other place to house the evacuees. Covid-19 infection is a strong possibility in these shelters. But if we don’t evacuate people from the coast, death by drowning and falling homes is a far stronger possibility. We are having to make a very tough choice.”

Residents are anyway reluctant to move to shelters because they have to abandon their livestock and are afraid of thieves. Some also want to be on hand so that they can at least try to repair dykes broken by the storm. Due to shortage of labour in the first days of the lockdown, some of the paddy crop along the coast has not been harvested yet.

Women in a school designated as a cyclone shelter, but now also being used as a Covid-19 quarantine centre, in Kulagachi village of Deulia Panchayat in the northern part of the Sundarbans [image courtesy Sundarban TV]

In Bangladesh, Enamur Rahman, the minister for disaster management and relief, said on Monday that cyclone shelters were being prepared so that evacuees may maintain physical distance. “We have instructed the DCs (deputy commissioners) in the coastal districts to prepare an additional number of shelters so that people can take shelter there maintaining social distancing measures.”

Bangladesh is geared up to evacuate over five million people, and over 12,000 cyclone shelters have already been prepared. Officials and volunteers are going around the villages along the coast, asking people to move to shelters. Emergency evacuation has been planned as far east as Barishal and Chattogram districts, though these areas are not forecast to be badly affected unless the cyclone alters course the way Bulbul did.

According to the Department of Disaster Management, Bangladesh has around 4,500 cyclone shelters, each able to house anywhere between 600-1,200 people. But that does not take the Covid-19-forced distancing norms into account. Now the government has brought the number up to 12,000 by asking local officials to use all schools, colleges and seminaries in the coastal districts as cyclone shelters. But there is no word on how to ensure distancing there or in the regular shelters to avoid the virus infection.

[Cyclone shelter at Kalabogi village, in the Khulna division of Bangladesh, close to the Bay of Bengal coast; the shelters are typically built on stilts so that livestock can be housed at the ground level (image by: Alamy)]

“I’m afraid. I think the cyclone shelters might be breeding grounds for the virus,” said Liton Chowdhury, Director of Young Power in Social Action (YPSA), an NGO working in Chattogram and Cox’s Bazar regions. “People who move to the shelters are mainly poor and marginalised – social distancing and maintaining hygiene is a luxury for many of them.”

The Bangladesh government is providing 100 tons of rice, Taka 3.1 million (USD 36,454) for baby food and Taka 2.8 million (USD 32,926) for fodder as emergency support; 4,200 packets of dry food have been sent to the shelters as reserve.

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