Wrath of the seas: cyclones during the lockdown

Cyclones Amphan and Tauktae struck Indian coasts during a state of lockdown. How prepared were we? What was the damage done?

A year ago, Cyclone Amphan battered the eastern coast of India. This May, Cyclone Tauktae has whaled India’s western coast. 

Amphan had fermented in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean and made landfall near Bakkhali, Bengal on the afternoon of May 20, 2020. Tauktae stirred forth from the cold waters of the Arabian Sea and shook the Gujarat Coast on the evening of May 17, 2021. 

Both cyclones struck during a state of lockdown.

Amphan was a Category 5 tropical cyclone, which refers to a ‘Very Severe Cyclonic Storm.’ Tauktae falls under Category 3 to 4, and is the fifth strongest storm to have emerged from the Arabian Sea ever.  

Warning bells

Only when the IMD confirms the approaching cyclone, are the mitigation and preparation phases set into motion. The portenders, patrol crews and coast guards are mobilized immediately. 

Ahead of Amphan, more than 3 million people had been evacuated across the Bay of Bengal, from Orissa, Bengal and Bangladesh. The officials had refined the warning system using social media, text messaging, television broadcasts and knock-on-the-door pleas.

The National Disaster Response Force chief had said that all rescue teams were ready and equipped with tree-cutters and pole-cutters. 

Before Tauktae struck land, multiple squads in orange hazmat and yellow helmets were deployed to urge thousands of vulnerable residents to shift to higher ground. Thousands of people were relocated in Maharashtra, while more than 2 lac people were whisked away from low-lying areas in Gujarat. The Mumbai Monorail and the Bandra-Worli sea link were shut down. 

But a cyclone by any other name would bring as much ruin. Despite the warning bells, nearly 100 people lost their lives to Amphan. The death toll due to Tauktae has been close to 100 too, with the counting still underway.

Amphan and Tauktae will probably never return in our lifetimes, as the names are retired when a cyclone is particularly deadly or costly.  

Cyclones and COVID19

Bad things often come in twos, sometimes threes. The flaring Covid-19 caseloads, the hurtling cyclone and impaired mobilization due to lockdown restrictions teamed to form a devil’s trifecta. 

As per NDMA guidelines in India, the primary responsibility of a pandemic falls on the Centre, whereas the responsibility in an event of flooding is borne by the state government. Dual disasters require an interlinked mitigation approach by the dealing authorities.  Both the Centre and affected States were kept on their toes when Amphan and Tauktae hit, coinciding fatally with the first and second waves of COVID19 19. 

Amphan struck when India was witnessing an alarming spike in COVID19 cases. A special control room was set up for CM Mamata Banerjee to monitor the rapidly unfolding situation. Dry food packets and water pouches were arranged to be disbursed in coastal areas. 

There was an air of general apprehension despite the home secretary ensuring that social distancing would be maintained at cyclone centres. Several shelters were not available because they had been converted into COVID19 centers. The locals feared evacuating the safety of their homes, afraid that they would catch the virus in the process. 

Tauktae whammed on a the day when India reported the highest number of deaths due to COVID19. The National Crisis Management Committee (NCMC) sprung to action to secure “zero loss” of lives due to the cyclone. Food was stocked, water and essentials arranged, power backup and oxygen supplies were monitored closely. 

In Mumbai, 580 COVID19 patients were transferred from jumbo units into civic-run facilities. These mass evacuations posed an increased risk to the patient’s health and those around them. National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) chief Satya Pradhan said, “you have to evacuate in a certain way because you do not want COVID19 infections on your hands post-cyclone.” 

Read more: Photo essay: threats to Kharghar’s ecosystem

The storm’s fury, unleashed

The Amphan winds howled through Kolkata at 113 kmph, a speed unheard of in the recent history of the city. Netaji Subash Chandra Bose airport was flooded into a lake. Thousands of books stacked neatly in the open stores of College Street, got decimated. New Alipore, Behala and Sukia Street bore the snarl and bulk of the cyclone. Exploded transformers and downed electrical lines plunged the neighbourhoods into darkness for several days.

The cyclone also inundated the Sunderbans and seeped into many fringe villages and remote islands that were home to wildlife refuge. Both, urban and rural infrastructure suffered colossal damage.

The impact of Amphan was, arguably, worse than COVID19. The economic loss due to Amphan was pegged at $13billion.  “Sarbanash hoye galo,” (everything got destroyed) said West Bengal Chief Minister Banerjee from her control room.

She pleaded with the Centre to send in five columns of Indian Army Personnel to aid in the restoration process.  The army arrived on May 23, 2020. “In this time of distress and despair, the entire country and the Centre are with the people of Bengal,” said Prime Minister Modi. 

This time around, the PM’s Twitter handle read: 

“Reviewed preparedness on Cyclone Tauktae including ensuring essential supplies, continuing the COVID-19 fight and more. Praying for everyone’s safety and well-being.” 

At 160 kmph, the cyclone brought tight ropes of rain and gale winds, inundating half the country. Six deaths were reported on the Konkan coast.  Tauktae banjaxed a jumbo Covid center and a vaccination ward in Mumbai. A big tree crashed close Netravati express, but there were no casualties. 

Travesty occurred when barge P305, an ONGC vessel at the Bombay High offshore oilfield, crashed into a rig during the cyclonic storm. The Indian Navy braved choppy waters to rescue around 186 people, but atleast 49 were killed. Maharashtra Minister Nawab Malik criticised ONGC for not heeding the cyclone warnings and risking the lives of 600 workers.  

In Gujarat, tens of thousands of houses were destroyed by Tauktae. Millions of electricity poles and trees were uprooted. Modi reached Gujarat to assess the situation by an aerial reconnaissance. Malik asked ‘Why not (conduct an) aerial survey of Maharashtra too?’

While Amphan was weakened by a vertical wind shear six hours after landfall, Tauktae volleyed on with the same intensity even after the initial 24 hours. In both cases, there has been an irrevocable damage to infrastructure and agriculture. The lower strata of society took the worst blow, before the cyclones started to dissipate into depression. 

Preparing for the worst

Extreme weather events are becoming a chronic phenomenon. Cyclones have intensified and grown more frequent across South Asia. IMD has reported a 32% increase in cyclones over the past five years alone. Climate change and ocean warming have made them more even powerful. 

The disaster management framework in present-day India is ill-braced to deal with natural and biological disasters simultaneously.

Amphan and Tauktae have left a clear writing across battered walls: it could have been worse. The mutating virus and its multitudinous waves too are compelling reasons to prepare better for the future.

Even as we hope to enter a post pandemic world, we must work towards building its resilience against other disasters. The first big step is to accept that disaster is coming. Then we must marshal our efforts towards reducing vulnerability, strengthening infrastructure and supporting local institutions.

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