NEW DELHI - Cyclone Amphan, one of the most powerful storms to hit South Asia in recent years, has claimed at least 81 lives and caused large-scale devastation in India and Bangladesh, officials said Thursday.
Amphan destroyed thousands of homes, uprooted trees, submerged villages and left vast areas without access to drinking water, power and communications as authorities struggled with relief operations amid coronavirus outbreaks in both countries.
Seventy-two people were killed in India's West Bengal state, which took the brunt of the storm, with the state capital Kolkata accounting for 15 casualties, state chief minister Mamata Banerjee said.
Amphan barreled in from the Bay of Bengal and slammed the state's coast late Wednesday, bringing heavy rains and packing winds up to 185 kilometers per hour (kph) (115 miles per hour).
The cyclone traveled inland into Bangladesh, where nine more deaths were confirmed, according to disaster management official Nitay Dey Sarkar.
The extent of damage became clearer on Thursday, with television footage from Kolkata showing extensive damage to infrastructure and roads, upturned cars and felled electric poles.
"It is a catastrophe," Banerjee said. "The whole southern part of the state has been affected. We are shocked. It will take three to four days to assess the damage."
Millions were left without power as there were outages in large parts of Bangladesh and West Bengal.
Officials said it was among the worst storms to ever hit Kolkata, a densely populated city with 15 million inhabitants.
"It was a terrifying experience. Our windows rattled and our building swayed under the impact of the storm. Amphan has left a trail of destruction with collapsed lamp posts and trees on roads and massive water-logging in the city," Kolkata resident Priya Rawat said.
"I have never seen anything like this in my life. People in Bengal have been shaken by this natural disaster that comes right in the middle of the COVID-19 outbreak," she said.
Kolkata airport, which was shut ahead of the storm, was left flooded and many structures were damaged. At least two hangars collapsed, damaging the aircraft inside.
Low-lying areas in coastal districts and offshore islands in Bangladesh and India experienced water surge up to 5 meters (16 feet) above the astronomical tide. Areas up to 17 kilometers (10 miles) inland were inundated.
Many homes were submerged after flood protection embankments had broken, mainly in Bangladesh's southwestern Satkhira district bordering West Bengal.
"Many areas are devastated with no water supplies. In our village everything has been flattened by the terrible storm," a local near the cyclone landfall site of Digha told broadcaster NDTV.
Footage showed big waves crashing into a seawall in Digha and the Sunderbans region, a vast mangrove forest straddling India and Bangladesh.
The cyclone also posed a risk for the Sunderbans region's endangered royal Bengal tigers. Previous storms have led to deaths within the depleted big cat population.
Amphan was the second "super cyclone" to form in the northeastern Indian Ocean in two decades before it weakened in intensity on Tuesday. By Thursday, it was considered a tropical depression still producing heavy rains in places.
Cyclones often form over the Bay of Bengal between April and November, bringing widespread destruction and flooding to India's southern and eastern coasts. In 1999, a super cyclone struck Odisha, claiming 10,000 lives.
The last major cyclone in the region was Cyclone Fani, which hit Odisha last year with wind speed exceeding 200 kph (115 mph). It claimed 64 lives in India and four in Bangladesh.
With the weather conditions improving, people had started returning to their homes in Bangladesh.
India's National Disaster Response Force launched relief operations and hundreds of its workers were clearing roads of trees and electricity pylons that blocked traffic.
The coronavirus pandemic and physical distancing measures made the operations more challenging.
India and Bangladesh are struggling with a surge in coronavirus infections and are under a protracted lockdown to contain the spread of the virus.
Since Monday, disaster management authorities in Bangladesh and India had evacuated more than 3 million people.
Meteorological expert Mahesh Palawat said that, though the intensity of tropical storms over the Bay of Bengal had increased in recent years, the number of casualties had fallen due to effective disaster management planning.
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