Authorities seek to move more than a million people to safety as a powerful cyclone nears the east coast.
Heavy rains and howling winds are lashing eastern India as the COVID-stricken country’s second cyclone in as many weeks makes landfall, killing at least three people in Odisha state and forcing more than 1.2 million people to seek shelter.
Cyclone Yaas, packing gusts of up to 140kmph (87mph), made landfall at about 9am local time (03:30 GMT) on Wednesday, destroying tens of thousands of houses, forcing the closure of the busiest regional airport in the city of Kolkata, and bringing storm surges to coastal areas.
In Odisha, one person died in Keonjhar district’s Panchapalli village and another in Balasore district after trees fell on them, local officials told Al Jazeera. In the state’s Mayurbhanj district, the dead body of a 15-year-old boy was found in a pond at Jagannath Khunta village by a National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) team.
The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) classified Yaas as a “very severe cyclonic storm”, as television broadcast images of rough seas, strong winds and rains lashing Odisha, with shops and homes boarded up.
“Landfall process of Cyclone Yaas is complete. Between 10.30am (05:00 GMT) to 11.30am (06:00 GMT), it crossed 20km (12 miles) south from the Balasore coast,” IMD director-general Mrutyunjay Mohapatra told Al Jazeera.
“The cyclone is now moving towards Mayurbhanj district and Jharkhand (state),” he said.
Scientists say cyclones are becoming more frequent and severe in the northern Indian Ocean as climate change warms the sea, devastating coastal communities.
Last week, Cyclone Tauktae tore up the western coast, triggering mass evacuations and claiming at least 155 lives.
Storm surges have been forecast in the low lying areas of Odisha and West Bengal states. A tornado that preceded the storm killed two people as it tore through West Bengal’s Hooghly district, authorities said.
Kolkata, West Bengal’s main city, ordered its international airport to shut down for most of Wednesday. The airport in Odisha’s capital, Bhubaneswar, followed suit.
Pradeep Kumar Jena, Odisha government’s special relief commissioner, told reporters seawater has entered hundreds of villages in different coastal districts of the states.
“Huge number of trees have fallen. We are now focussing on road clearance and restoration work,” he said. “As there is a possibility of infection during this disaster, we will increase COVID testing in affected areas.”
Jhili Behera, a resident of Oupada block in Balasore district, told Al Jazeera her house is badly damaged.
“Water has entered our house. Food, cloth and other essentials are wet. We are now at a higher place of our village and waiting for the water level to decrease,” she said, adding that people in five nearby villages were facing the same problem.
“Every life is precious,” said Odisha’s Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik as he appealed for people not to “panic”. His West Bengal counterpart Mamata Banerjee told reporters that about 20,000 mud houses and temporary shelters had been damaged in the state.
“I have not seen anything like this before,” said another state minister, Bankim Hazra, after seawater gushed into the low-lying areas of Sagar island in the Bay of Bengal and the tourist town of Digha, where a police station was flooded.
“Successive high tides battered the coastline,” he added. “It is inundation all around and villages are cut off.”
A record 4,800 disaster workers had been positioned in the two states, equipped with tree and wire cutters, emergency communications, inflatable boats and medical aid, the NDRF said.
“We are on alert, keeping an eye on the cyclone. Though the wind speed is high, wherever possible we are moving to fields and rescuing people. We are trying to maintain the communication system too,” NDRF official Arun Devgam told Al Jazeera.
The Indian navy said its Chilka naval base was monitoring ships in the area and was ready to mount rescue and relief operations.
While masks have been distributed in emergency shelters and relief workers are trying to impose social distancing, many officials fear the new cyclone will only speed up the spread of the virus.
“This cyclone spells double trouble for millions of people in India as there is no respite from COVID-19,” said Udaya Regmi, the South Asia head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Hazra said it would be “a big challenge” to maintain social distancing in the emergency shelters.
Some vaccination centres in threatened districts as well as Kolkata suspended operations because of the storm and a special operation had been launched to ensure the supply of oxygen and medicines to hospitals, officials said.
Some of the deadliest storms in history have formed in the Bay of Bengal, including one in 1970 that killed half a million people in what is modern-day Bangladesh.
Odisha’s worst-ever cyclone in 1999 killed 10,000 people. Last year Cyclone Amphan, the worst since 1999, caused widespread devastation but timely evacuations meant fatalities were fewer than 150.
Subrat Kumar Pati contributed to this report from Bhubaneswar, Odisha