The evacuation of people living in the coastal belt of the state has been made even tougher by the social-distancing guidelines warranted by the coronavirus.
To make sure residents saved from the impact of the storm don’t end up being exposed to the virus, West Bengal has arranged more shelters than it usually does, while also putting together thousands of personal protective equipment (PPE) kits for volunteers and lakhs of masks for evacuees.
Even so, in some areas, convincing residents to shift into shelters with other people while a highly infectious disease is stalking the world is proving a fresh challenge altogether.
Cyclone Amphan is expected to make landfall in West Bengal Wednesday afternoon or evening. Three coastal districts of West Bengal and four southern districts, including Kolkata, are expected to bear the brunt of the landfall and the storm surge, Alipore MET department officials said.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee made an emotional appeal to the state Wednesday, offering paeans to human strength as she sought to alert residents to the challenge at hand.
The state, she said, is battling “three emergency situations — the coronavirus crisis, the return of migrant labourers from around the country and now the super cyclone Amphan”.
“When your house is on fire, you only run to save your life first. Rest can be taken care of later. Maintaining rules of social distancing will be difficult as we look at it practically, but our district magistrates are still working hard to keep all arrangements in place,” she added in an address from Nabanna Tuesday.
“Only God knows which emergency situation will prevail over what, but I believe the strength and will of people will win,” she said.
She also held a two-hour-long online conference with the ministers concerned and representatives of the district administration.
Evacuation in the time of coronavirus
The India Meteorological Department (IMD) said Monday that Amphan is expected to reach the West Bengal coast in the afternoon/evening of 20 May with wind speeds of over 155-165 kmph, causing heavy rainfall and storm surges in the coastal districts.
The storm is likely to impact the coastal districts of Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapada, Bhadrak, Jajpur and Balasore in Odisha, and East Medinipur, South & North 24 Parganas, Howrah, Hooghly, and Kolkata in West Bengal.
The IMD has classified Amphan as a ‘super cyclonic storm’, predicting that it will weaken to an ‘extremely severe cyclonic storm’ by the time it makes landfall.
Most of the areas in Bengal that are likely to witness maximum damage are green zones (least Covid-19 risk), but the recent movement of migrants has made things critical, said a senior official of the state government.
In South 24 Parganas, which is likely to be the worst-affected district in the state, the authorities have arranged 600 cyclone shelters, four times the usual, besides 5,000 PPE kits and at least 1 lakh regular masks.
Speaking to ThePrint, South 24 Parganas district magistrate P. Ulaganathan said more than 90,000 people had been evacuated, including around 14,000 villagers living in eight remote Sundarbans islands like Ghoramara, Pujali and Kumirmari that lie deep in the forest and jut into the sea.
“We are anyway fighting against Covid, and the evacuation or rescue work became even more difficult. However, people are cooperating with us,” he added. “Our target is to evacuate at least 1.5 lakh people. The second phase of evacuation is going on now.”
Asked about the special measures taken in light of the pandemic, he said the district had arranged dozens of additional evacuation centres.
“We had around 150 flood shelters in the district. Now, we have requisitioned at least 450 more to maintain social-distancing norms. We have requisitioned schools, local community centres, small hotels, lodges, other big government buildings,” he added, explaining that the occupancy at each shelter will be cut by almost 60 to 70 per cent.
“For rescue workers or disaster management volunteers, we have already distributed 5,000 PPE kits and we have more in stock,” he said. All flood centres, Ulaganathan said, will have a medical team on standby for screening and medical assistance.
South Parganas had 97 confirmed Covid-19 cases as of Tuesday, but Ulaganathan said the parts most vulnerable to Amphan were green zones that had not reported any case in the last 14 days.
Villagers reluctant to leave
Even with the shelters ready, the authorities faced a hard time convincing residents of the coastal zone to move there. While villagers in some places like South 24 Parganas cooperated, people in East Medinipur district initially resisted the shift because of Covid-19 fears.
A senior official of the East Medinipur district, which comprises the Digha coastal belt where Amphan is likely to make landfall, said about 30,000 people had been shifted to safer places from low-lying areas and more were being evacuated.
The official admitted that there is an element of reluctance among villagers. “But the administration is doing its bit persuading them to move,” the official said.
A senior state government official said people in South 24 Parganas were cooperating because “they have seen the destruction after cyclone Aila in 2009 and Bulbul last year”.
“However, this (Amphan) seems to be worse than the previous cyclones we witnessed. We are trying our best to persuade all the people… and making all efforts to maintain the distancing and sanitising norms,” the official added. “We have supplied a huge number of masks and adequate quantities of sanitisers to all the cyclone centres.”
State disaster management minister Javed Khan said around 1.5 lakh residents of coastal areas had been shifted to safer places. “A total of 2 lakh people would have to be evacuated from the coastal areas by today (Tuesday) evening,” he added.
Although the coastal belt of West Bengal “has been spared coronavirus infections”, he said the local administration had been asked to exercise as much caution as possible. “Nearly 2 lakh masks have been dispatched for distribution among the evacuees,” he added.