Natural Disaster

Amphan is the biggest natural calamity to ever hit West Bengal

Print edition : June 05, 2020

An uprooted tree lying across the road. Photo: KSL

A fallen tree on the boundary wall of a house. Photo: KSL

The super cyclone Amphan tore through several districts on May 20, leaving a trail of death and enormous destruction.

With COVID-19 spreading rapidly in the State, the last thing that West Bengal needed was a super cyclone wreaking havoc in the coastal districts and the State capital Kolkata. The super cyclone Amphan, the biggest natural calamity to ever hit the State, tore through several districts on May 20, leaving a trail of death and enormous destruction. Originating in the Bay of Bengal, Amphan crashed upon the coastal belt of the State near Sagar Island at a speed of 155-165 km per hour, with gust wind speed going up to 185 km per hour, along with very heavy rain, and proceeded on a trail of devastation through Kolkata on its journey into Bangladesh.

As of May 22, at least 86 people were killed, lakhs of homesteads broken, thousands of trees uprooted, infrastructure damaged, agricultural land and crops destroyed, ruining the lives of lakhs of people who were already in the face of a major financial crisis due to the nationwide lockdown. According to preliminary estimates, around 10.5 lakh houses have been destroyed and more than 1.36 crore people have been badly hit. Overall, around 60 per cent of the people in the State have been affected by the cyclone. The death count may rise once the waters start receding.

In Bardhaman district alone, where the impact of the storm was not as severe as in certain other districts, 30,000 hectares of paddy has been damaged, along with 12,000 hectares sesame and 5,000 hectares of vegetables. According to reports, the district administration has said around Rs.250 crore worth of crops have been destroyed by the cyclone. Large scale crop damage has been also reported in Paschim Medinipur, Howrah, Hooghly and North and South 24 Paraganas.

According to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s initial estimate, the total damage caused by the cyclone is around Rs.1 lakh crore. She said Bengal had never seen a disaster of such magnitude. Calling it a “bigger disaster” than the COVID pandemic that is infecting thousands of people in the State, Mamata said “area after area have been destroyed”. The worst-hit districts in the State are North and South 24 Paraganas, Kolkata, Hooghly, Purbo and Paschim Medinipur, and Howrah.

Nadia and parts of Bardhaman have also been badly affected. If it were not for the timely evacuation action undertaken by the State administration, many lives would undoubtedly have been lost in the storm. By the evening of May 19, around five lakh people were already shifted from their houses and put up in cyclone shelters.

As Amphan made its landfall, gigantic waves could be seen crashing upon the coastline at Digha in Purbo Medinipur, and a large number of dams in the Sunderbans and the coastal districts broke down as water gushed forth submerging villages. Mighty trees, bent low by the wind, snapped like twigs and fell across the roads and on buildings and boundary walls. “If Aila (the devastating storm of 2009 that ravaged the State) was 10, then this is 110. I have heard that a similar cyclone had hit the region in 1737 in which thousands had lost their lives,” said Mamata.

Kolkata devastated

Two hours after making its landfall in Sagar Island at around 2:30 p.m., the storm hit Kolkata. From the morning of May 20, the State capital was getting persistent rain and strong winds, but when the cyclone made its landfall, the wind speed in Kolkata went up to 80-90 km per hour, and when the cyclone hit the city around 4:30 p.m., it shook it to its ancient foundations. Never has Kolkata witnessed such a storm. In certain parts of the city, the wind speed ranged from 112 to 133 km per hour. For around five hours the storm raged, splitting trees down the middle, uprooting them, plucking lampposts off the ground, blowing away asbestos roofs and tin awnings, shattering windows, overturning vehicles and flooding the streets with relentless rains.

Debris unhinged from rooftops, broken glass panes and window frames, shattered nests of birds, unripe fruits were flying about along with branches of trees. Old houses—some of them as old as 200 years— began to crumble under the pressure of the wind and many dilapidated structures that used to give a quaint touch to the cityscape collapsed never to be reconstructed again.

The terror of the experience was heightened as the entire city plunged into darkness with the power supply turned off. Inside their dark houses, cheered only by the candlelight, the people of Kolkata remained helpless as the storm, like some demented mythical monster, rose out of the sea to destroy their lives. It howled outside and rattled on the doors and windows and destroyed arbitrarily in sudden violent bursts. According to eyewitness reports, even the massive airplane in the Netaji Subhas International Airport shook at the impact of the wind. In Dumdum the wind speed had gone over 130 km per hour. The airport area itself was completely submerged under heavy rain.

Around 9 p.m., the ferocity of the wind and the rain started abating as Amphan finally left the city, but the first light of the next morning revealed the full horror of what had transpired the night before. Those who had slept that night woke up to find a ravaged region in the place of their neighbourhood. Not a single part of the city was spared. Large areas remained cut off due to waterlogging and felled trees, and electricity, internet and phone connections were mostly dead. The devastation was most apparent in the more green areas of Kolkata like Southern Avenue, Salt Lake, New Alipore, Golf Green where massive uprooted trees blocked main roads and lay on boundary walls of houses and on cars. Everywhere torn wires and cables lay entangled on the ground with the branches of trees. At least 5,500 trees were uprooted in the few hours of the storm.

Even two days after the storm, in many areas of Kolkata and its neighbouring districts, electricity was not restored, and phone and internet connections remained unstable. Without electricity and drinking water, people started losing their patience and began staging protests on the roads. In places like Ajoy Nagar, Behala, and Dum Dum in Kolkata, and Uttarpara in Hooghly district, residents stood on the roads and obstructed traffic in protest. “For two days there has been no light and no water. Trees have been lying around from the morning after the cyclone. How are we going to live? We are requesting CESC [Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation] to restore the lights, but nothing is happening,” said a resident of Ajoy Nagar. Around 2,500 electric poles were destroyed in the cyclone.

Mamata Banerjee and Modi inspect the disaster-hit zones together

On May 22, Prime Minister Narendra Modi along with Mamata Banerjee and West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar took an aerial survey of the the worst-hit regions in the State. After holding an administrative meeting, Modi, addressing a press conference ,said, “We will work shoulder to shoulder with the State government for the speedy restoration and rehabilitation of West Bengal so that Bengal can rise again and continue on its path to progress. We will do whatever is necessary and apply all the relevant rules and regulations to stand ready beside West Bengal. In this time of distress, to ensure the State government faces no problems, we will extend an advance of Rs.1,000 crore. For the families of those who have died, we will give a compensation of Rs.2 lakh each from the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund, and Rs.50,000 for those who have been injured,” said Modi. Earlier, Mamata had already announced that the State government has created a Rs.1,000 crore fund for relief and rehabilitation, and pledged to extend Rs.2.5 lakh as compensation to the families of those who had died in the storm.

Modi pointed out that the fight against COVID was diametrically opposite to the fight against the disaster caused by the cyclone. “In combating COVID one needs to stay at home and maintain social distancing, but in escaping from a cyclone, one needs to get to safety as soon as possible. These two diverse battles West Bengal has had to fight, and under Mamata Banerjee’s leadership, it has made a commendable effort. The Central government is standing by her in this time of trouble and is doing whatever is required now and will try to fulfill whatever needs to be done in the days to come,” said Modi.

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