May 21, 2020 / 6:20 AM / 12 days ago

Cyclone leaves trail of devastation along coast of eastern India, Bangladesh

KOLKATA/DHAKA, May 21 (Reuters) - Rescue teams searched for survivors in eastern India and Bangladesh a day after the most powerful cyclone in over a decade devastated coastal villages, destroying mud houses, ripping out electricity poles and washing away bridges.

The full extent of the casualties and damage to property inflicted by Cyclone Amphan would only be known once communications were restored, officials said, but at least a dozen people died in the Indian state of West Bengal and eight in neighbouring Bangladesh.

Most deaths were caused by trees uprooted by winds that gusted up to 185 km per hour (115 mph), and a storm surge of around five metres that inundated low-lying coastal areas when the cyclone barrelled in from the Bay of Bengal on Wednesday.

“I have never seen such a cyclone in my life. It seemed like the end of the world. All I could do was to pray... Almighty Allah saved us,” Azgar Ali, 49, a resident of Satkhira district in Bangladesh.

Mohammad Asaduzzaman, a senior police official in the coastal district, described the destruction Amphan left in its wake.

“Devastation is huge. Many villages are flooded. It tore off tin roofs, snapped power lines, and uprooted trees.”

Designated a super cyclone, Amphan has weakened since making landfall. Moving inland through Bangladesh, it was downgraded to a cyclonic storm on Thursday by the Indian weather office. And the storm was expected to subside into a depression later.

Authorities in both countries managed to evacuate more than three million people, moving them to storm shelters before Amphan struck. But the evacuation effort was focused on communities that lay directly in the cyclone’s path, leaving villages on the flanks still vulnerable.

Television images showed upturned boats on the shore, people wading through knee-deep water and buses crashed into each other. The airport in Kolkata, West Bengal’s state capital, lay under water.

Pradip Kumar Dalui, a official in the state’s South 24 Parganas area, said that storm waters breached river embankments in several places, flooding over half a dozen villages, that were home for more than 100,000 people.

“Many mud houses have been destroyed because of the wind or fallen trees,” Dalui told Reuters by telephone. Electricity lines and phone connections were down in many places, but so far no deaths had been reported in this area, he said.

The cyclone came at a time when the two countries are battling to stop the spread of the coronavirus, and some evacuees were initially reluctant to leave their homes for fear of possible infection in the packed storm shelters.

Cyclones frequently batter parts of eastern India and Bangladesh between April and December, often forcing the evacuations of tens of thousands and causing widespread damage.

While the evacuation again saved countless lives, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee dreaded the cost of repairing property and infrastructure wrecked by Amphan.

“Area after area has been devastated. Communications are disrupted,” she said. “We do not know if the damages will run into thousands of millions of rupees, will take three, four days to fully assess the extent of damage.”

Additional reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal in New Delhi, Jatindra Dash in Bhubaneshwar, Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore

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