India evacuates 2 million as storm slams east coast

India shifted more than 2 million people to safer places as a powerful cyclone hit the east coast at a time when the nation is battling the world’s worst outbreak of Covid-19.

The eastern state of West Bengal has evacuated about 1.5 million people from low-lying areas, according to Mamata Banerjee, the state’s chief minister. Neighboring Odisha has moved more than 500,000 people to various relief centers. Local authorities have asked people to maintain social distancing at cyclone shelters to check the spread of the coronavirus.

Yaas, the second severe storm to batter India in 10 days, poses several challenges for already stressed authorities in the country that are battling a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. The infections have strained India’s health system and overwhelmed crematoriums and hospitals. They have also spread to rural areas, where about 70 percent of the nation’s 1.3 billion people live.

Federal Home Minister Amit Shah asked the state governments to ensure adequate power backup for hospitals, laboratories, cold stores for vaccines and other medical facilities.

The India Meteorological Department said the cyclone’s landfall process started on Wednesday morning, with wind speeds seen rising as high as 155 kilometers (96 miles) per hour. Sea levels may increase three meters above regular tides and inundate low-lying areas, it said in a statement.

India regularly witnesses severe storms. A super cyclone in Odisha in 1999 killed about 10,000 people. Yaas follows a category 3 cyclone that reached the opposite coast last week—the worst in over two decades in the western state of Gujarat—killing dozens after a barge sank in the sea. The eastern region was also hit by a severe cyclone in May 2020, while another one in 2019 prompted authorities to evacuate millions of people.

In neighboring Bangladesh, river transport has been suspended. Low-lying areas of southern and southwestern districts face a threat of flooding. As a precautionary measure, the country has readied 15,000 storm shelters that could accommodate as many as 2.5 million people.

Airports shut

The storm has impacted several flights in the affected states as airports in Kolkata, Bhubaneswar, Rourkela and Durgapur will remain shut on Wednesday.

Ports, refineries and plants were on alert. Indian Oil Corp., the biggest refiner, has stopped unloading crude oil at Paradip in Odisha, according to a spokesman.

Ongoing construction activities by oil and gas companies in the region have been temporarily suspended, according to Indian Oil. All ships carrying crude oil and other related products have been asked to keep a safe distance from the cyclone’s path, it said in a statement, adding that efforts are underway to ensure smooth supply of liquid medical oxygen from the eastern parts to the rest of the country.

More than 20 relief columns of the Indian Army have been deployed and another nine are on standby. Heavy and medium transport aircraft of the Air Force have flown in over 200 personnel and equipment for the National Disaster Response Force.

Tata Power Co. has mobilized nearly 10,000 people, including engineers and contract workers, to take up restoration work in the affected region, said Praveer Sinha, chief executive officer of the company, which manages power distribution operations in Odisha.

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