India, Bangladesh evacuate millions ahead of cyclone amid coronavirus fears
India and Bangladesh began evacuating more than two million people Monday as a cyclone barreled towards their coasts, with officials racing to ready extra shelters amid fears of coronavirus contagion in cramped refuges.
Indian forecasters said Cyclone Amphan had reached winds of up to 240 kilometres (145 miles) per hour with gusts of 265 kmph over the Bay of Bengal late Monday, ahead of the expected landfall on Wednesday.
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Bangladesh disaster management secretary Shah Kamal said more than 12,000 shelters, including 7,000 schools and colleges, were being readied to avoid crowding amid fears of the virus spreading.
Evacuees would be required to wear masks and encouraged to wear gloves while in the shelters, he added.
Up to two million residents from low-lying areas would be evacuated from Tuesday, he said, adding that they had capacity to shelter more than 5 million evacuees.
Amphan is expected to weaken before it hits India's eastern states and the south and southwestern coasts of Bangladesh, but still pack winds of up to 175 kmph – making it a category six storm on India's seven-level scale for tropical storms.
The cyclone would bring "heavy rain and high-velocity winds" to coastal districts in West Bengal and Odisha states, G.K. Das of the Regional Meteorological Centre in India's eastern city of Kolkata told AFP.
Bangladesh officials warned it could become the worst storm to hit the region since Cyclone Sidr in November 2007, which killed more than 3,000 people.
In India, more than 200,000 people in low-lying areas will be moved from their homes in West Bengal by Tuesday, state minister Manturam Phakira told AFP.
An official at the cyclone control room of India's eastern Odisha state said shelters would be prepared for up to 1.1 million people, although the area is expected to escape the brunt of the storm and less than 10 percent of capacity would likely be used.
Bangladesh's low-lying coast, home to 30 million people, and India's east are regularly battered by cyclones that have claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in recent decades.
In 1999, Odisha was hit by a super-cyclone that left nearly 10,000 dead. In 1991, the combination of a typhoon, tornadoes and flooding kill 139,000 people in Bangladesh.
While the storms' frequency and intensity have increased – partly due to climate change – the death tolls have come down because of faster evacuations and the building of thousands of coastal shelters.
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