The strongest storm on record to hit India’s west coast hit the country on Monday, hampering authorities’ response to the Covid-19 crisis in some of the country’s hardest hit regions.
Tropical Cyclone Tauktae, a storm with wind speeds equivalent to a Category 3 hurricane that formed in the Arabian Sea, made landfall in Gujarat late Monday night local time. According to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center in the United States, it strengthened slightly as it approached the western state, with maximum sustained winds of 205 kilometers per hour (125 mph).
According to the Indian Meteorological Department, it had weakened from a “extremely severe cyclonic storm” to a “severe cyclonic storm” by Tuesday morning (IMD).
Heavy rain turned highways into rivers, and ferocious winds toppled trees and power lines, according to photos and videos. According to state officials, the cyclone killed at least 26 people in the coastal states of Gujarat, Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, and Maharashtra.
According to state disaster management authorities, the deaths were caused by drowning at sea, house collapses, lightning strikes, and other accidents related to the severe weather.
This comes as India is dealing with its second coronavirus outbreak, which has infected millions and killed tens of thousands since it began in mid-March. Though daily case numbers have begun to decline in the last week, Covid-related deaths continue to set new records, and the crisis is far from over, particularly in rural areas with fewer resources and medical supplies.
Hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated from low-lying areas this week as the region braced for the arrival of the cyclone. According to the city’s municipal corporation, 580 patients from makeshift care centers were transferred to various hospitals in Mumbai on Friday and Saturday.
It’s not the first time India has had to deal with natural disasters during the pandemic; last year, the country was hit with cyclones in late May and early June, causing mass evacuations.
However, India’s cases were still relatively low at the time, with fewer than 10,000 reported each day, and the country was emerging from a strict lockdown.
This time, India is the pandemic’s global epicenter. Its health-care system has failed, and patients are still dying as a result of a lack of oxygen and other supplies. As it struggles to contain the outbreak while facing heavy criticism both at home and abroad, the government is more fragile and under greater scrutiny than ever before.
And the cyclone could be a foreshadowing of even more disasters to come as India’s monsoon season approaches.
More than 200,000 people have been evacuated from coastal areas in Gujarat, according to the state’s chief minister, Vijay Rupani, on Monday. More than 2,435 villages lost power, though 484 have since regained it.
The IMD warned that storm surges of up to 13 feet (4 meters) could cause significant coastal flooding in the region. Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s most populous city, could receive nearly 4 inches (102 mm) of rain in the next 24 to 48 hours, which is more than the city’s average rainfall from January to June.
According to the chief ministers of both states, thousands of people in Kerala and Karnataka are seeking refuge in relief camps, with many homes damaged by the extreme weather.
The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) of India has sent more than 100 teams to six coastal states to assist with relief efforts. The Indian military has also been called in; on Tuesday, the Navy announced that it had rescued 177 people from a barge that had sunk in an offshore oilfield off the coast of Mumbai. The pandemic relief effort is also being impacted by the cyclone, which is moving north.
100 of Gujarat’s 400 Covid-19 hospitals have lost power, according to Rupani on Tuesday. All of the hospitals have backup generators, but four of them failed, leaving four hospitals without power.
According to Rupani, authorities are attempting to repair the damaged generators. Vaccinations in Gujarat have been halted.
“The big concern was that of Covid,” he said. “The oxygen which we produce has been transported to our hospitals, but we also have to send oxygen to other states such as Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Delhi, Haryana, etc.”
Oxygen production is ongoing even throughout the cyclone, he said.
“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 Udaya Regmi, South Asia head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, in a statement on Monday.
“Many families are barely staying afloat,” he added.
As part of its Covid restrictions, Gujarat already imposed a curfew in 36 cities. It was supposed to end on Tuesday, but due to the cyclone, it has been extended for three more days, according to Rupani.
The impending monsoon season complicates matters even more. Every year, heavy monsoon rains begin in June and last until early fall, replenishing water supplies that farmers rely on to feed their crops.
However, the rain frequently overwhelms flood management systems and causes significant damage in hard-hit areas.
As climate change has made weather more extreme and unpredictable, the monsoon season has become more intense. Hundreds of people died in Kerala alone in 2018 as a result of flooding in August. During the monsoon season in 2019, more than 1,600 people died across the country.
According to a study published earlier this year, for every degree Celsius of global warming, India’s monsoon rainfalls will likely increase by 5%, resulting in more “chaotic” monsoon seasons.
Though the monsoon season isn’t supposed to begin until June 1, CNN meteorologists believe it will arrive sooner due to Cyclone Tauktae’s landfall and a change in winds.