A severe cyclone looms for India as death toll from last week's major storm rises

A satellite image showing a storm in the Bay of Bengal, approaching eastern India on Sunday. PHOTO: AFP

KOLKATA (AFP, REUTERS) - A severe cyclone is brewing off India's eastern coast, the nation's weather bureau warned on Sunday (May 23), as the death toll rose from a major storm that wreaked havoc in the west of the virus-hit nation last week.

Moving northwards in the Bay of Bengal, the depression is set to form a cyclone - to be dubbed Yaas - before intensifying and hitting the eastern states of West Bengal and Odisha on Wednesday (May 26), the India Meteorological Department said.

The storm could pack winds of up to 165kmh, hitting occasional highs of up to 185kmh by mid-Wednesday as a "very severe cyclonic storm", the third-worst category, the department said.

It also warned of storm surges of up to 4m high in coastal areas.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Sunday he had chaired a meeting on the approaching storm, with the military and disaster teams deployed to help with the preparations and potential rescue operations.

Ports on the eastern coast restricted shipping activities and asked vessels to vacate anchorages ahead of the storm, the port authorities and trade sources said.

Paradip Port in the eastern state of Odisha has asked for all loading and unloading equipment, cranes and machines to be secured, according to a notification issued on Sunday.

"All vessels at Paradip anchorage to pick up anchor and move to sea, equipment and machineries at under construction areas to be secured," the port said in the notification.

Kolkata Port Trust Chairman Vinit Kumar said the port has taken preparatory measures to avoid the loss of human lives, vessels and property.

"Before the onset of the cyclone, all port vessels will be taken inside dock for shelter. No ships will be kept in river anchorages or jetties," Mr Kumar said.

The authorities at Haldia port in the state of West Bengal have asked for inward movement of vessels to be stopped from Monday evening, two trade sources said.

India's armed forces have already moved nearly 1,000 rescue staff and kept dozens of aircraft on stand-by.

Cyclone Yaas is set to hit soon after Cyclone Tauktae, India's first major tropical storm this season that battered the western state of Gujarat late last Monday.

The death toll from the storm rose to at least 140 on Sunday, with 70 bodies recovered after the cyclone hit an oil rig off Mumbai and several support vessels, the navy said.

Around 600 people were rescued by the navy but five remain missing from an accommodation barge for oil workers that ripped free of its anchors in the storm and sank.

"Search and rescue ops by ships and helicopters/aircraft will continue in the area to locate the remaining crew of the sunken vessels," the navy said in a statement on Sunday.

India's neighbour Bangladesh, which borders West Bengal, said it was monitoring Yaas.

"All the boats and fishing trawlers have been ordered to come close to the coast as a precautionary measure. Tomorrow (Monday) we will have a better idea where it is heading," Bangladesh Meteorological Department senior weather forecaster Bazlur Rashid told Agence France-Presse.

Scientists say cyclones in the densely populated region, currently reeling from a deadly wave of Covid-19 infections, are becoming both more frequent and stronger as climate change leads to warmer sea temperatures.

Last May, more than 110 people died after "super cyclone" Amphan ravaged eastern India and Bangladesh, flattening villages, destroying farms and leaving millions without electricity.

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