Cyclone Amphan: Evacuation and shelter efforts in Bangladesh, India slowed by coronavirus

Several million people were taking shelter in Bangladesh and western India Wednesday as Cyclone Ampham approached the coast. The "super cyclone" has been described as the fiercest cyclone ever in the Bay of Bengal.

Heavy rain and strong winds began to lash the area hours before the cyclone was expected to reach land. Bangladesh's disaster management officials had worked on a war footing to evacuate about two million people from coastal areas along the bay.

As the storm approached, evacuation efforts gave way to attempts to keep people safe in shelters.

Large flooding was also expected with waves of over five meters (16 feet) spotted near the coast of India. The storm may push seawater 25 kilometers (15 miles) in land, raising the possibility of flooding crowded cities like Kolkata.

Hundreds of Rohingya refugees living on a flood-prone island were also moved to storm shelters. Bhasan Char island, which has been described as "uninhabitable," by the UN,is a large sandbank that appeared from the ocean less than 20 years ago. Rights groups have urged Bangladesh to bring the refugees to the mainland, but authorities say the storm shelters are safe.

The world's largest refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar on the mainland is expected to miss the worst of the storm, though the danger level has been raised from six to nine.

Read more: Cyclone Amphan: Millions evacuated in India, Bangladesh, as storm approaches

People forced out of their houses

Evacuation and shelter efforts in eastern India and on the Bangadeshi coast were hampered by social distancing measures put in place to slow the spread of coronavirus. Many people refused to go to shelters or leave their livestock, as they were afraid of contracting COVID-19.

"We have literally had to force people out of their homes, make them wear masks and put them in government buildings," a senior police official told Reuters news agency in West Bengal, an Indian state.

The effects of the cyclone are expected to be felt first in two Indian states and then cross the border to Bangladesh around midday local time.

Winds are predicted to reach 185 km/h (115 mph) when the cyclone makes landfall. The area has seen large cyclones and storms in the past: in 1970 Cyclone Bhola killed half a million people, and storms in 1999 and 2007 left thousands more dead.

ed/aw (Reuters, AFP, AP)

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