MAHUVA, INDIA (REUTERS, AFP) - A cyclone on India's west coast has killed at least 19 people and damaged infrastructure and agriculture, while heavy rains continued to lash some regions even as weather officials said on Tuesday (May 18) that the storm's intensity had weakened.
The cyclone Tauktae, which made landfall in the western state of Gujarat late on Monday, has hit power supply in 2,400 villages in the state as a thousand electricity pylons were damaged, Chief Minister Vijay Rupani said in a media address.
Nearly 160 roads have been destroyed, 40,000 trees uprooted and several houses damaged, Mr Rupani added.
More than 200,000 people were evacuated from their homes in the western state of Gujarat and authorities shut ports and major airports as the cyclone Tauktae made landfall late on Monday, packing gusts of up to 210 kph.
"Heavy rains and wind speeds of up to 100-110 kmph (62-68 mph) are continuing at many places, and the whole administration remains on standby to deal with any situation," he added.
The cyclone which was categorised as "extremely severe" weakened to a "very severe" storm after making landfall, the Indian Meteorological department said. The intensity is set to reduce further in the next few hours, it added.
Tauktae, the most powerful cyclone in more than two decades, piles pressure on India which is already grappling with a staggering spike in coronavirus cases and deaths as well as a shortage of beds and oxygen in hospitals.
"Our priority is to clear the roads, so there is no impact on oxygen movement" due to the cyclone, said Gaurang Makwana, the top official of Bhavnagar district in Gujarat.
Mr Rupani assured that oxygen manufacturing had not been hit and hospitals with Covid-19 patients remained unaffected.
A survey has also been initiated in Gujarat to ascertain the agricultural losses due to the cyclone.
"The standing crops would have suffered definite losses, especially in areas of Saurashtra where the cyclone hit the hardest," said Manish Bhardwaj, principal secretary at the state agriculture department.
Before reaching Gujarat, the cyclone left a trail of destruction as it brushed past the coastal states of Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, as well as Maharashtra, home to India's financial hub of Mumbai, authorities said.
The Indian navy said it had rescued 177 people from one of two barges that were adrift near the Mumbai coastline, adding that planes and helicopters had been deployed to scour the seas.
No damage to ports and refineries
In Gujarat, no damages have been reported at the refineries and sea ports that were expected to be in the storm's path.
At the Jamnagar refinery, the world's biggest oil refinery complex that is owned by Reliance Industries, no damage was reported, a company spokesman told Reuters. Operations at the Mundra port, India's largest private port, have resumed, a port official said.
The Kandla Port, the largest government-run port in the country, has however not resumed operations as wind speed of more than 70 kmph made it unsafe to do so, port officials said.
"We may resume operations in the afternoon today depending on the weather conditions," SK Mehta, chairman of Kandla Port, said, adding there was no damage in the port.
Mumbai authorities closed the airport and urged people to stay indoors, shifting about 600 Covid-19 patients in field hospitals "to safer locations", while sea levels swelled as high as 3m near the seaside town of Diu.
The deadly weather system has exacerbated India's embattled response to a coronavirus surge that is killing at least 4,000 people daily, and pushing the health system to breaking point. Around 200,000 people were evacuated in Gujarat, where all Covid-19 patients in hospitals within 5km of the coast were also moved.
Authorities there scrambled to ensure there would be no power cuts in the nearly 400 designated Covid hospitals and 41 oxygen plants in the area.
Mr Rupani told reporters that more than 1,000 Covid hospitals in coastal towns have been provided with generators.
"Besides the daily requirement of 1,000 tonnes of oxygen in Gujarat per day, an additional stock of 1,700 tonnes has been secured and could be used in case of emergency," Mr Rupani said.
Virus safety protocols such as wearing masks, social distancing and the use of sanitisers would be observed in the shelters for evacuees, officials added.
The state also suspended vaccinations for two days. Mumbai did the same for one day.
Terrible double blow
Thousands of disaster response personnel have been deployed to help with the fallout from Tauktae, while units from the coast guard, navy, army and air force have been placed on standby.
"This cyclone is a terrible double blow for millions of people in India whose families have been struck down by record Covid infections and deaths," said Mr Udaya Regmi from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
The organisation said it was helping authorities to evacuate people most at risk in coastal areas, providing first aid, masks "and encouraging other critical Covid-19 prevention measures".
Last May, more than 110 people died after "super cyclone" Amphan ravaged eastern India and Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal.
The Arabian Sea previously experienced fewer severe cyclones than the Bay of Bengal but rising water temperatures because of global warming was changing that, Dr Roxy Mathew Koll from the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology told Agence France-Presse.
"(The) Arabian Sea is one of the fastest-warming basins across the global oceans," he said.