Above: Villagers salvage items on May 21, 2020, from a house damaged by Tropical Cyclone Amphan in Midnapore, West Bengal, India. (Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP via Getty Images)
Striking in the midst of a global pandemic, Tropical Cyclone Amphan deepened the misery across coastal east India and Bangladesh. The destruction was still far from being fully assessed on Friday local time, as many thousands of downed trees were impeding transportation across the region.
At least 77 deaths were reported in India and 25 in Bangladesh, according to the European Union’s Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (via ReliefWeb). The death toll is expected to rise, possibly dramatically, as rescuers make their way into the hardest-hit areas, including the remote islands within the Sundurbans mangrove forest and preserve. Amphan’s peak storm surge was pushed into this area, located on the coast of easternmost India and western Bangladesh.
Although Amphan’s top winds just after landfall were down to Category 1 strength (85 mph) from their fearsome peak two days earlier (sustained winds of 165 mph, a Category 5 equivalent), the cyclone brought damaging winds well inland, and tropical-storm-force winds—which can easily bring down trees and power lines—likely affected a vast area. The New York Times reported that many of the fatalities recorded thus far were from wind-related damage, including downed power lines causing electrocutions and trees collapsing onto homes.
Torrential rains of up to 9” in the Kolkata area—a notoriously flood-prone region—led to major inundations, including the city’s international airport.
If there is a bright spot, it was the successful evacuation of some three million people out of storm-vulnerable housing and into shelters, including about 2.4 million in Bangladesh and roughly 600,000 in India. Past cyclones of this magnitude across the region have killed many thousands of people. Even so, it appears that many residents opted not to raise any potential risk of getting the novel coronavirus at a community shelter, so the human toll may end up larger than would have been the case without the complication of the pandemic.
Amphan the most expensive tropical cyclone in India’s history
Early estimates indicate that Amphan will be far costlier than any other tropical cyclone on record in India. Mamata Banerjee, chief minister for India’s West Bengal state, said on Friday that damages in West Bengal were on the order of 1 lakh chore, equivalent to about $13 billion USD, the Hindustan Times reported. Prior to Amphan, India’s most expensive storm was the 1999 Odisha cyclone, which struck eastern India with sustained winds of 155 mph. The cyclone left some $4.4 billion in damage across four nations, including $2.5 billion in damage in India (1999 USD, which would equate to roughly $3.9 billion in 2020).
The United Nations office in Bangladesh estimates some 10 million people were affected, and some 500,000 people may have lost their homes, Al Jazeera reported. It may take several more days to assess the damage in the Sunderbans, which likely saw the highest storm surge from Amphan.
As explained in a blog post by storm surge expert Hal Needham, several factors may have conspired to boost the surge in Bangladesh, including the concave geometry and shallowness of the northern Bay of Bengal, Amphan’s larger-than-usual wind field, and the lag effect with surge that is common to high-end cyclones that weaken before landfall. In a 2014 study of more than 100 surge cases in the Gulf of Mexico, Needham and colleagues found that the surge magnitude was best correlated with peak winds from 18 hours before landfall. At that point in its life cycle (around 00Z on Tuesday, May 19), Amphan was a Category 4 equivalent.
With Amphan’s landfall just west of Bangladesh, the cyclone’s effects were minimal along Bangladesh’s eastern border with Myanmar, where the world’s largest refugee camp and nearby settlements are home to almost a million Rohingya refugees. Early projections from the GFS model had suggested Amphan could barrel directly into the area.