Kolkata/Bhubaneswar/New Delhi: Super cyclone 'Amphan' weakened into an extremely severe cyclonic storm over the west-central Bay of Bengal Tuesday afternoon as it rolled towards the Indian shores in West Bengal and Odisha where lakhs of people were evacuated from vulnerable areas and shifted to safety, officials said.
The two states are on high alert, as the cyclone, cramming high-velocity winds, triggered rains in several parts of Odisha.
An India Meteorological Department (IMD) bulletin said the cyclone lay centred over west-central Bay of Bengal, about 520 km south of Paradip in Odisha and 670 km south-southwest of Digha in West Bengal. It was moving north-northeastwards at a speed of 14 kmph.
Yellow alert in 9 Kerala districts
Meanwhile, yellow alert has been declared in six districts of Kerala. They include Pathanamthitta, Alappuzha, Kottayam, Ernakulam, Idukki and
Thrissur. Thunderstorm accompanied with lightning is likely in parts of Kerala from May 19 to May 21, the Indian Meteorological Department informed.
Heavy rainfall (7- 11 cm in 24 hours) is very likely to occur at one or two places in Kerala on May 19. Fishermen have been advised to not venture into the sea during the period.
Several lakhs evacuated
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said around three lakh people have been evacuated from the coastal areas in the state.
The evacuees, she said, have been shifted to cyclone shelters.
Authorities, however, were mindful of the difficulty they could face in ensuring social distancing norms at these shelters in the state which has witnessed a surge in COVID-19 cases over the last few days.
"Indeed, there will be some problems but we will ensure that social distancing is maintained at cyclone centres," he said.
Banerjee said she will talk to the railways and ask it to not run Shramik Special trains to the state to bring back migrant labourers from Wednesday till Thursday morning as a precautionary measure.
Odisha is in a state of readiness to evacuate around 11 lakh people living in vulnerable areas, officials said. The process has already started and an unspecified number of people have been sheltered in cyclone centres.
Coastal districts of North and South 24 Parganas, and East Midnapore, including the ecologically fragile Sundarbans, in West Bengal face a serious threat of inundation and significant damage to life and property.
"The evacuees have been put up at cyclone shelters, schools and colleges. Our experience in tackling cyclone Fani and Bulbul last year will be put to good use," the state's Disaster Department Minister Javed Khan said.
The government, in view of the COVID-19 pandemic, has distributed more than two lakh masks among the evacuees, and Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) have been handed out to the State Disaster Relief Force (SDRF) personnel deployed in the vulnerable areas, a senior official said.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah spoke to chief ministers of West Bengal and Odisha -- Mamata Banerjee and Navin Patnaik--and assured them of all possible help to deal with the situation, officials said in New Delhi.
'Amphan' had turned into a super cyclonic storm from extremely severe cyclonic storm on Monday, only the second such tropical storm over the Bay of Bengal in two decades, before getting somewhat enfeebled. Odisha was savaged by a super cyclone in 1999 that had claimed around 10,000 lives.
As 'Amphan' rumbled towards the Indian coastline, the effect was felt in Puri, Kendrapara, Jagatsinghpur and Khurda districts of Odisha which witnessed light rain and wind. Both are set to intensify over Tuesday and Wednesday.
The cyclone is likely to make a landfall between Digha, some 180 km south of Kolkata in West Bengal, and Hatiya islands in Bangladesh on Wednesday afternoon. The maximum sustained wind speed at the time of the landfall is likely to range between 155 and 165 kmph, gusting to 180 kmph.
IMD Director-General Mrutyunjay Mohapatra said since the cyclone is gradually weakening, its impact is unlikely to be very severe in Odisha.
However, coastal districts like Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapara, Bhadrak and Balasore are likely to be battered by heavy rains and high-velocity winds from Tuesday evening, he said.
Fourteen teams of National Disaster Response Force, each consisting of 45 personnel, and 20 units of Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force (ODRAF) have been deployed in the districts likely to be hit.
"Around 4,000 SDRF personnel are monitoring the evacuation operation. The entire fishermen community has been asked not to venture out to the sea for the next two days, and those who are at sea have been asked to return," an official of the West Bengal disaster management department said.
Relief materials, including dry food and tarpaulin, have been dispatched to coastal areas, he said.
Quick response teams comprising trained civil defence volunteers and vehicles with safety gear have already reached the districts. The State Emergency Operation Centre at the secretariat is in constant touch with the exigency units set up in the districts, he said.
The state's forest department has, meanwhile, formed rapid response teams to ensure that tigers from Sundarbans in South 24 Parganas do not stray into nearby human settlements.
Chief Wildlife Warden Ravi Kant Sinha said a control room has been set up at Gosaba to monitor the situation in the mangrove forests round-the-clock.
Rapid response teams have been deployed in Sajnekhali and Jharkhali in South 24 Parganas with tranquiliser guns, nets and speed boats to negotiate the creeks during urgency.
The cyclone comes a year after 'Fani' barreled through vast areas of Odisha on May 3 last year, claiming at least 64 lives and destroying infrastructure in power, telecom, water supply and other vital sectors.