Super cyclone 'Amphan' weakened into an extremely severe cyclonic storm on Tuesday but still packed enough force to pulverise coastal districts of Odisha and West Bengal where lakhs of people were evacuated from vulnerable areas and shifted to safety, officials said.
As it rumbled over the Bay of Bengal 510 km off the Digha coast in West Bengal, likely charting a north-northeastward course, the two states were on high alert.
The cyclonic system that spread in a diameter of 18 km on Monday expanded to 33 km on Tuesday, a meteorological department official said in Bhubaneswar, explaining that the sprawl had reduced the cyclone's intensity.
The weatherman said when 'Amphan' makes the landfall between West Bengal's Digha, some 180 km from Kolkata, and Hatiya island in Bangladesh on Wednesday afternoon or evening, it will pack sustained wind speed of 155 to 165 kmph, gusting at 185 kmph.
The gale-force wind, blowing at a speed of 240 to 250 kmph and gusting to 275 kmph at one point, had lost intensity and was moving at a speed of 200 to 210 kmph, gusting to 230 kmph on Tuesday evening.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said around three lakh people have been evacuated from the coastal areas in the state, while around one lakh people were shifted to cyclone shelters in Odisha.
41 teams of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), including seven reserves, have been deployed in the two states, its chief S N Pradhan said in New Delhi.
15 NDRF teams are deployed and five are in reserve in seven districts of Odisha, while 19 teams were actively deployed and two in reserve in six West Bengal districts, he said.
The authorities were mindful of the difficulty they could face in ensuring social distancing norms at shelters following a surge in COVID-19 cases over the last few days.
Due to social-distancing protocols in the wake of coronavirus, the cyclone rescue centres having a capacity to hold about 1,000 people will have only 400-500 people, Pradhan said.
Pradhan said Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba chaired a meeting of the national crisis management committee (NCMC) on Tuesday to take stock of the situation.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah also spoke to Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and his West Bengal counterpart Mamata Banerjee to review the preparedness for the impending cyclone.
Banerjee said she will talk to the railways and ask it to not run Shramik Special trains to the state to bring back migrant labourers from Wednesday till Thursday morning as a precautionary measure.
Odisha is in a state of readiness to evacuate around 11 lakh people living in vulnerable areas, officials said.
The process has already started and around one lakh people have been evacuated to safety.
Coastal districts of North and South 24 Parganas, and East Midnapore, including the ecologically fragile Sundarbans, in West Bengal face a serious threat of inundation and significant damage to life and property, officials said.
"The evacuees have been put up at cyclone shelters, schools and colleges. Our experience in tackling cyclone Fani and Bulbul last year will be put to good use," the state's Disaster Department Minister Javed Khan said.
The government, in view of the COVID-19 pandemic, has distributed more than 2 lakh masks among the evacuees, and Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) have been handed out to the State Disaster Relief Force (SDRF) personnel deployed in the vulnerable areas, a senior official said.
'Amphan' had turned into a super cyclonic storm from extremely severe cyclonic storm on Monday, only the second such tropical storm over the Bay of Bengal in two decades, before getting somewhat enfeebled. Odisha was savaged by a super cyclone in 1999 that had claimed around 10,000 lives.
Officials said the storm could destroy standing crops, damage mud and thatch houses, and disrupt power and communication lines in coastal districts of the two eastern states.
The IMD has advised people to remain at home and warned against opening markets in and around Kolkata on Wednesday.
North and South 24 Parganas, East and West Midnapore, Kolkata, Howrah and Hooghly districts will experience strong winds and rainfall, regional director of the meteorological department G K Das said.
"Storm surge of 4 to 5 metres above astronomical tide is likely to inundate low lying areas of South and North 24 Parganas and about 3 to 4 metres over low lying areas of East Midnapore district of West Bengal during the time of landfall," he said.
These districts had suffered the most during cyclone 'Bulbul' and 'Fani' last year.
A defence official said in Kolkata that the Indian Navy has dispatched a diving team for providing assistance to the West Bengal government in rescue operations.
IMD Director-General Mrutyunjay Mohapatra said since the cyclone is gradually weakening, its impact is unlikely to be very severe in Odisha.
However, coastal districts like Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapara, Bhadrak and Balasore are likely to be battered by heavy rains and high-velocity winds from Tuesday evening, he said.
Odisha govt advises migrants against returning home in coastal districts
Meanwhile, the Odisha government has asked officials to discourage migrants from returning to their hometown in coastal districts, and insisted that food and accommodation arrangements be made for them.
Additional Chief Secretary and Special Relief Commissioner (SRC) P K Jena, in an advisory issued on Tuesday, said district collectors should allow vehicles carrying migrant workers and others to enter the state, but exercise discretion on sending them home.
On Tuesday, 15,773 people returned to Odisha from other states.
"It is not advisable to allow the people returning from other states and entering Odisha by bus to proceed to the districts which are already under the threat of cyclone.
"If their journey is cut short at the border check posts, it might lead to a large congregation at one area. Hence, controlled action has to be taken to manage the situation," Jena said.
After letting in the vehicles, the collectors must make necessary food and accommodation arrangements for the returnees, especially the ones who hail from coastal districts, he said.
"If the number of returnees is high, the collectors may seek help for shelter arrangement from neighbouring districts," Jena said.