Bhubaneshwar/Dhaka, May 4 (Agencies/The Daily Star): At least three people were killed as Cyclone Fani, the biggest storm to hit India in 20 years, slammed into its eastern state of Odisha yesterday, damaging houses and cutting off power, water and telecommunications.
It made landfall at the temple town of Puri in the morning, with winds gusting at up to 200 kilometres per hour.
Fani is the strongest cyclonic storm since the Super Cyclone of 1999, which claimed around 10,000 lives and battered the Odisha coast for 30 hours.
As the cyclone progresses into West Bengal, it is expected to weaken gradually into a severe cyclonic storm with winds of 90-100kmph and gusts of 115kmph before entering Bangladesh as a cyclonic storm with winds of 60-70kmph.
It is likely to hit Kolkata early today, a city home to 4.5 million people.
Fani spent days building up power in the northern reaches of the Bay of Bengal before it struck the coast of Odisha around 8:00am, said the state-run India Meteorological Department (IMD).
In recent days, the authorities in Odisha state evacuated more than a million people as they were worried about a possible 1.5-metre (five-foot) storm surge sweeping far inland.
Quoting officials, news agency PTI said three people were killed during the storm in Odisha. A teenager was killed when a tree came crashing down on him in Puri. Flying debris from a concrete structure hit a woman in Nayagarh district, leaving her dead.
In Kendrapara, a 65-year-old woman died after suspected heart attack at a cyclone shelter, it added.
Media reports put the death toll at up to six, but officials could not confirm this.
In West Bengal, thousands of people have been asked to move to safer places. Local airports were shut, while train lines and roads remained closed.
In a statement, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation said no flights would depart or arrive at the Kolkata airport from 3:00pm yesterday to 8:00am today.
“We are monitoring the situation 24×7 and doing all it takes… Be alert, take care and stay safe for the next two days,” West Bengal’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee tweeted. She cancelled her election rallies for 48 hours because of the cyclone.
The winds of the enormous cyclone were felt as far away as Mount Everest, with tents blown away at Camp 2 at 6,400 metres (21,000 feet) and Nepali authorities cautioning helicopters against flying.
“It just went dark and then suddenly we could barely see five metres in front of us,” said one resident in Puri.
“There were the roadside food carts, store signs all flying by in the air,” the man told AFP from a hotel where he took shelter. “The wind is deafening.”
Another witness said he saw a small car being blown along a street by winds and then turned over.
Meteorologists have warned of the “total destruction” of thatched houses, the uprooting of power and communication poles and damage to crops in some areas.
Some 3,000 shelters in schools and government buildings were set up to accommodate more than a million people in Odisha, with families including women and babies huddled on the floor.
Ports have been closed but the Indian Navy has sent six warships to the region while India’s biggest oil and gas producer ONGC evacuated almost 500 workers from offshore rigs.
Measures were also taken to protect the 850-year-old Jagannath temple in Puri, a Hindu holy town normally thronging with pilgrims.
AFP correspondents said Puri was a near ghost town with trees already torn down and water levels rising even before Fani’s arrival.
Electricity and water supplies were already cut for much of the temple town of 200,000 people. Metal shutters covered store fronts and sand blew up the streets from the nearby beach. Only a few police vehicles and tractors trying to pull trees or push aside collapsed walls could be seen.
Media reports said hundreds of trees were uprooted by violent winds at the nearby Chilika Lake just south of Puri.
The name ‘’Fani”, which is pronounced as “Foni”, was suggested by Bangladesh. Roughly translated, “Fani” means the hood of a snake, according to reports.
India’s cyclone season can last from April to December, when severe storms batter coastal cities and cause widespread deaths and damage to crops and property in both India and Bangladesh.
But recent technological advances have helped meteorologists predict weather patterns more accurately and prepare.
Cyclones typically quickly lose power as they move inland.
The severe cyclonic storm Fani over coastal Odisha and adjoining northwest bay moved north-northeastwards and has weakened further before reaching Bangladesh.
It now lies over coastal Odisha, Gangetic West Bengal and adjoining area at last reported around 9:00pm, according to the latest special weather bulletin from Bangladesh Meteorological Department.
It is expected to move in a northeasterly direction further and reach Khulna and adjoining southwestern part of Bangladesh during midnight tonight to tomorrow morning, the bulletin said.
In Bangladesh, by noon on May 3, 1.24 million people had been removed to 4, 071 cyclone shelters, said the Bangladesh High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Riaz Hamidullah.
He said that Bangladesh has over the years developed expertise in disaster management and minimization of casualties. It has over a lakh of volunteers to warn people about impending natural disasters like cyclones, and make them move to safer areas or to the many cyclone shelters built by the government.
Community radios broadcast continuously to keep the people informed, the High Commissioner added.
Bangladeshi cyclone shelters are on stilts with people housed on the elevated floor, he said. Discovering that people were reluctant to move without their cattle, the government has built cattle shelters adjacent to the human shelters, Hamidullah said.
Report in The Daily Star by Dipankar Roy from a cyclone shelter n Khulna:
It was shortly after 3:30pm yesterday when Saddam Sana, a 44-year-old farmer, arrived at a temporary cyclone centre in Dacope’s Tildanga health complex. He was completely drenched and quivering.
Saddam along with his wife and two children went to the three-storey building, adjacent to the Shibsha river, to take refuge from cyclone Fani.
This was not the first time Saddam came to a cyclone centre. The memories of cyclones Sidr and Aila were still fresh in his mind.
Sidr caused devastation, including destroying houses and other establishments, in the coastal regions of Khulna in 2007. Two years later followed the Aila and broke embankments, keeping some areas partially submerged for nearly two years.
Like Saddam, around 170 people, including women and children, were staying in the shelter, which had a capacity to accommodate around 300 people, yesterday. Many arrived there with their belongings and cattle. But many like Saddam couldn’t.
“I need to go back [home], I need to save them,” said the man from Dacope’s Gorkhali village, adding he had also lost his home after Aila struck. “I’d to live in shelters for days when Aila came”.
Another villager, Mamata Mistary, said she bought some dry food with her and was taking them.
Contacted, Dacope Upazila Nirbahi Officer Abdul Wadud said they would arrange dry food for those staying in the cyclone centres.
He said there were 83 cyclone shelters and 163 primary and high school completely ready to shelter those living in the coastal areas of Khulna.
District administration sources said more than 1.8 lakh people of that coastal region were evacuated to the shelters and schools.
Visiting a nearby temporary shelter in Uttar Kaminibasia Binapani Government Primary School in the same union, this correspondent saw there over a hundred people from nearby villages. The school can shelter more than 300 people, said the teachers there.
Talking to The Daily Star, Krishna Paba Mondol, a farmer from Kaminibasia, said he carried his 78-year-old paralysed mother to the school, after hearing about cyclone Fani from the TV.
“My other family members will come here soon,” he said, adding he could not bring with him his cattle and belongings.
Kalpana Mondol, a woman union parishad member, said she was supervising the shelter and asked the villagers to go there for their safety.
Contacted, Khulna Deputy Commissioner Mohammad Helal Hossain said they began the evacuation around 11:00am.
More and more people from the coastal areas of the district started to arrive at the shelters after afternoon following drizzle and heavy wind, he said.
UNO Wadud said, “We are working for 100 percent evacuation”.
Polash Kumar Banerjee, executive engineer of Water Development Board (Division-2), Khulna, said they were closely monitoring the dykes and were arranging sandbags to repair them.