Cyclone Fani slams Indian coast, with Bangladesh in sight
Authorities in Bangladesh evacuated about 400,000, with Rohingya in refugee camps at threat
Cyclone Fani tore through India's eastern coast on Friday as a Grade 5 storm, lashing beaches with rain and wind gusting up to 205 km/h, and affecting weather as far away as Mount Everest.
The India Meteorological Department said the "extremely severe" cyclone in the Bay of Bengal hit the coastal state of Odisha around 8 a.m. local time, and was forecast to weaken to a "very severe" storm as it moved north-northeast toward the Indian state of West Bengal.
Weather across the Asian subcontinent was impacted by the cyclone, with dust storms forecast in the desert state of Rajasthan bordering Pakistan, heat waves in the coastal state of Maharashtra on the Arabian Sea, heavy rain in the northeastern states bordering China and snowfall in the Himalayas.
Around 1.2 million people were evacuated from low-lying areas of Odisha and moved to nearly 4,000 shelters, according to India's National Disaster Response Force. Indian officials put the navy, air force, army and coast guard on high alert. Odisha Special Relief Commissioner Bishnupada Sethi said the evacuation effort was unprecedented in India.
By Friday afternoon, Fani had weakened to a "very severe" storm as it moved north-northeast toward the Indian state of West Bengal.
In Bhubaneswar, a city in Odisha famous for an 11th-century Hindu temple, palm trees whipped back and forth like mops against skies made opaque by gusts of rain.
It is a "very, very scary feeling," said Tanmay Das, a 40-year-old resident, who described "the sound of wind as if it will blow you away."
Most of the area's thatched-roof houses were destroyed, and there was no electricity.
Everest climbing efforts hampered
The national highway to Puri, a popular tourist beach city, was littered with fallen trees and electricity poles, making it impassable. A special train ran Thursday to evacuate tourists from the city.
The airport in Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, closed from 3 p.m. Friday to Saturday morning. At least 200 trains were cancelled across India.
The storm hit in the middle of India's six-week general election, with rain forecast in Kolkata forcing political parties to cancel campaign events.
The National Disaster Response Force dispatched 54 rescue and relief teams of doctors, engineers and deep-sea divers to flood-prone areas along the coast and as far afield as Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a group of islands that comprise a state about 1,300 kilometres east of mainland India in the Bay of Bengal.
Up to 10 centimetres of rain were expected in much of Sri Lanka, the island nation off the eastern tip of India.
More than 2,300 kilometres away Mount Everest, some mountaineers and Sherpa guides were descending to lower camps as weather worsened at higher elevations. The government issued a warning saying that heavy snowfall was expected in the higher mountain areas with rain and storms lower down the mountain, and asked trekking agencies to take tourists to safety.
Hundreds of climbers, their guides, cooks and porters huddled at the Everest base camp, according to Pemba Sherpa of the Xtreme Climbers Trek, who said weather and visibility was poor. May is the best month to climb the 8,848-metre Everest when Nepal experiences a few windows of good weather to scale the peak.
"It is still the beginning of the month, so there is no reason for climbers to worry" that weather from the cyclone will cost them their chance to reach the summit, Sherpa said.
Rohingya camp could be in harm's way
On India's cyclone scale, Fani is the second-most severe, equivalent to a Category 3 hurricane.
Its timing is unusual, according to data from the Meteorological Department. Most extremely severe cyclones hit India's east coast in the post-monsoon season. Over roughly half a century, 23, or nearly 60 per cent of the cyclones, to hit India were observed between October and December.
Because Fani spent 10 days gathering strength over the sea, it delivered a huge blow when it made landfall.
UNHCR has prepositioned emergency tents in the Rohingya camps for monsoon/cyclone seasons which can be rapidly deployed if needed and help save lives. UNHCR/BDRCS shelter staff this week gave a quick installation demo on tent for IOM, Army + 40 refugee volunteers in Shamlapur. <a href="https://t.co/naSqISmZj4">pic.twitter.com/naSqISmZj4</a>—@UNHCR_BGD
In the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh just south of Odisha, Fani topped electricity poles and uprooted others, leaving them in sharp angles. In the Srikakulam district, where around 20,000 people had been evacuated, thatched-roof houses collapsed and fishing boats left unmoored on beaches had been sliced into shards.
The district experienced wind speeds of 140 km/h and received heavy rains but no loss of life or major damage was reported, district collector J. Niwas said.
Authorities in Bangladesh evacuated about 400,000 people and took them to cyclone shelters — decades-old, raised concrete structures — as the weather office forecast that the storm would cross the country's vast southwestern coastal region by midnight.
Aid agencies warned that the more than one million Rohingya from Myanmar living at refugee camps near the coastal district of Cox's Bazar were at threat. Hillol Sobhan, local communications director for the aid group Care, said it had emergency supplies for the refugees in Cox's Bazar.
The Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority said it suspended operations of all vessels. Authorities also halted activities at Chittagong Seaport, which handles 80% of the country's overseas trade.
Some of the deadliest tropical cyclones on record have occurred in the Bay of Bengal. A 1999 "super" cyclone killed around 10,000 people and devastated large parts of Odisha. Due to improved forecasts and better coordinated disaster management, the death toll from Cyclone Phailin — an equally intense storm that hit in 2013 — were less than 50, according to the World Meteorological Organization.
The 1999 super cyclone reached wind speeds of 260-280 kph (161-173 mph) per hour, according to the Meteorological Department's scientist Dr. M. Mohapatra.