Why Cyclone Amphan Is the Worst Calamity for Bengal in a Long Time

The last time Bengal witnessed a natural calamity of this scale and severity was in 1737.

Updated21 May 2020, 01:01 PM IST
India
4 min read

In a matter of hours, super cyclonic storm Amphan (pronounced Um-Pun) has left at least 72 dead in its wake and caused destruction worth over Rs 1 lakh crore, according to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

According to estimates, the last time Bengal witnessed a natural calamity of this scale and severity was in 1737, when a similarly ferocious cyclone ravaged through the region.

To make things worse, the natural calamity has struck Bengal at a time when the state has been stretched for resources in its battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, with over 3,100 confirmed cases and 253 dead.

How Bad Was The Cyclone?

On Wednesday, around 2:30 pm , Amphan made landfall in West Bengal’s Sagar Islands on the southern coast with wind speeds of 155-165 km/hour along with gusts that went up to 185 km/hour, according to India Meteorological Department.

Over the next twelve hours, the cyclone, categorized as ‘very severe’, wreaked havoc through North and South 24-Parganas, two districts adjoining Kolkata, before lashing the city with nearly unprecedented ferocity.

For comparison, the super cyclone that devastated Odisha in 1999 swept through the state with winds up to 260 km/hour.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who spent the entire day at the disaster management control room on the second floor of the state secretariat, was uncharacteristically sombre during her media address at 9 pm, admitting that the news of destruction coming in was worse than she had expected.

“We never thought the intensity would be this high,” she said during her address to the media.

Uprooted trees, lamp posts and traffic lights are a common sight across Kolkata on Thursday. 
Uprooted trees, lamp posts and traffic lights are a common sight across Kolkata on Thursday. 
(Image sourced)

Has Bengal Suffered Anything Like This Before?

The most recent cyclone that comes close to Amphan are Cyclone Bulbul that lashed through the state in November 2019 and the 2009 Cyclone Aila.

Even at the peak of its rampage through West Bengal, Aila’s wind speeds rose up to 120 km/hour, well short of the ferocity unleashed by the Wednesday’s cyclone.

Bulbul, which made landfall in the same Sagar Islands in southern Bengal on 9 November, 2019, had risen to 150 km/hour for a few minutes before weakening to a deep depression.

According to Roger Bilham at the University of Colarado, The Hooghly River Cyclone of 1737 is recorded as one of deadliest natural disasters of all time in the Gangetic delta region.

The cyclone, often referred to as the Calcutta Cyclone caused widespread damage to the low lying areas around Calcutta and Hooghly district.

On October 11, 1737, a large cyclone made landfall inside the Ganges River Delta, located just south of Calcutta, West Bengal, India. According to Bilham’s research, the Hooghly river rose almost 40 ft with a reported 381 mm (15 in) of rain falling in a 6-hour period. The storm tracked approximately 330 km inland before dissipating.

A neighbourhood in south Kolkata that was badly damaged by the cyclonic storm. 
A neighbourhood in south Kolkata that was badly damaged by the cyclonic storm. 
(Image sourced)

How Bad Has the Destruction Been?

This may take a while to answer accurately as an assessment of the scale of destruction and loss to life and property could only be undertaken in true earnest on Thursday morning.

The cyclone left behind a trail of destruction in Kolkata, Hooghly, North and South 24 Parganas districts. As per reports, over 5,000 houses were destroyed in North 24 Parganas alone, while many trees lay uprooted and infrastructure damaged in Kolkata.

Reports by the state government and the chief minister on Wednesday night paints a horrific picture of damages effected by the cyclone.

As early as Wednesday 6 pm, news of old houses and thatched huts collapsing and lives being lost had started coming in. The severe cyclonic storm mauled telecommunication systems, destroyed homes, uprooted hundreds of trees, electric poles, traffic lights and ravaged roads.

The uprooted trees have further snapped electricity wires, blocked vital roads and damaged property. Thousands of home across Kolkata and Southern Bengal suffered major power cuts and according to latest reports, there is still no electricity in several parts of the city on Thursday afternoon.

“Area after area has been devastated. Communications are disrupted. Never saw such a cyclone. If Aila (2009) was 10, this is 110. I have heard such a cyclone had hit in 1737 and thousands lost their lives”
Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister, West Bengal

A despondent Mamata announced “North and South 24-Parganas have been destroyed”.

What Happens Now?

According to the meteorological department, the super cyclonic storm moved northeastwards with a speed of 27 km/hour. Around 8:30 am, the storm lay centered over Bangladesh even though it continued to rain heavily in border districts of Bengal.

By 5:30 pm on Thursday, the cyclone is expected to weaken to a depression with sustained speeds of 30-40 km/hour. According to reports, at least 30 flights flying through Calcutta Air-traffic control’s route have had to be diverted while Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Airport itself had to be shut down because of water-logging.

According to The Telegraph, Mamata said she would chair a review meeting at 3 pm on Thursday at the state secretariat, where officials would present a preliminary estimate of the destruction.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday said “the entire nation stands in solidarity with West Bengal” and that “no stone will be left unturned in helping the affected”. The Ministry of Home Affairs will be sending teams to carry out early assessment of damages and submit a report, the Union Government said on Thursday, ANI reported.

“I have also spoken to CM Odisha, Shri Naveen Patnaik ji & CM West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee ji over situation arising due to the cyclone and assured all possible help from Centre,” Shah tweeted.

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Published: 21 May 2020, 11:55 AM IST
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