In 1737, a huge and strong cyclone made its landfall near the delta where the Hooghly River meets the Bay of Bengal. Such a strong cyclone was the first in recorded history to have hit the southern parts of Bengal. Some sources estimate the number of causalities to be around 300,000. The cyclone also hit interior parts, such as Calcutta (now Kolkata), and huge damages to life and property were recorded.
More than 250 years later, Cyclone Amphan hit Bengal and adjoining parts of Odisha and Bangladesh. Earlier numerous cyclones had emerged in the Bay of Bengal; only this time, it was something quite different. Cyclone Amphan got compared to the cyclonic storm of 1737. It was the first super cyclone to have been formed in the Bay of Bengal since 1999.
The districts of East Midnapore, Howrah, North and South 24 Parganas and Kolkata were the worst hits. Thousands of trees were uprooted and electricity, telephone and broadband lines were snapped by the falling trees in the city of Kolkata. The traffic lights were also crushed, and shattered glass lay on the streets, making it dangerous for everyone to walk on those roads.
Uprooted trees lay at every intersection, blocking people away from accessing major roads. Even emergency vehicles like ambulance, police and emergency fire services couldn’t move until the trees were removed, and the roads were cleared.
The morning saw scores of people photographing the unforeseen destruction with their cell phone cameras. Social distancing measures, it seemed were totally forgotten, but people wore masks as a last line of defence. Everyone became busy checking on their relatives and friends amidst the crisis, but alas, mobile networks and internet connection had totally been non-existent for many hours.
As the day progressed, people waited for relief efforts. The police officers were one of the first to reach the affected places, and they tried to assess the situation. Local residents used their household tools and bare hands to clear the roads so that they could go out and buy their essential groceries.
Large parts of the city were flooded. The college street book market got flooded, and some of the cell phones which were still working carried pictures of books floating on the flooded water. Presidency University was also flooded. Water entered even the very old Arts library of the university, which is situated on the ground floor of the 200-year-old building.
River jetties were torn apart, and vehicles got crushed under fallen trees. Parts of roof of the above-ground metro stations were blown off. Parts of Kolkata airport was submerged after the storm. A hanger was destroyed with a private aeroplane inside it. More than 84 people were killed in the storm in Bengal. Most of the fatalities have been from falling trees, walls, and electrocution.
It became evidently clear that most of the people in Kolkata have to spend their night in the dark with only a candle.
West Bengal state authorities faced a crisis of threefold.
Firstly, thousands of people were evacuated from southern and coastal parts of the state where the storm affected the most. Secondly, the social distancing measures because of COVID-19 made the evacuation operations even more difficult. People were provided with hand sanitizers and masks, and shelter homes were not used to their full capacity since it would bring more people under a small space and increase the chances of infection.
Third, the migrant workers are returning from other states. Ensuring proper quarantine measures became a challenge as the state administration also had to mobilise its resources for the Amphan situation.
Many islands of the Sundarbans Delta, which consist of hundreds of villages in the southern parts of the state, were completely cut off, and the state administration had no information regarding the extent of devastation caused by Cyclone Amphan in those places.
Pronab Biswas, as reported by THEWEEK, was planning to start a fishing business after his only son, a migrant labourer, returned from Maharashtra. His plans were blown away on May 20 when the cyclone swept away his home, cattle and lifelong savings. He now plans to join his son in Maharashtra once the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
There are thousands of people like Mr Biswas living in the delta of the Sundarbans area. They mostly reside in mud houses with thatched roofs. Their livelihood includes mostly fishing, farming, and raising cattle. On the evening of May 20, thousands of such livelihoods were destroyed.
The Sundarbans area is already under threat of an ecological crisis because of rising sea levels, even higher than the global average. Over the years, migrations from the region have seen a surge as farming is simply not an option as saltwater keeps coming inland. With the destruction caused by Amphan, it is expected that such migration will increase in the upcoming years.
The area got completely destroyed, and it needs to be rebuilt from scratch, according to the West Bengal Sundarbans Affairs Minister Manturam Pakhira.
Embankments at the Sundarbans Delta, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, had been breached due to the surge in seawater, caused by the cyclone.
Sufferings of the people in the Delta will be more devastating in the upcoming days. Many of the areas affected in the region have recently started getting relief measures.
More information is awaited from the region as connectivity is slowly getting restored. Hopefully, then, I can bring out more detailed reports from the worst affected areas of the Cyclone Amphan.
Part 1 of this article can be found here.