For those living in West Bengal, Thursday’s tryst with Cyclone Amphan must have been near apocalyptic. Frightened inhabitants cowered as the severe cyclonic storm barrelled down and gusts of wind roared alongside torrential rain that pummelled the region. What they witnessed—or rather experienced—evidently had no parallel in living memory. Buildings shook, windowpanes broke, nearby trees and electric poles fell, electric transformers exploded, thatched roofs unhinged by the gale dangerously flew across and entire neighbourhoods were plunged into darkness.
What Bengal went through was certainly nightmarish. Kolkata, for one, seemed like a war zone the following morning with residents somewhat bewildered and disoriented to find themselves amid the large-scale destruction. That they are in a collective shock is understandable: after all, it’s not often that the state is battered by a cyclone of such intensity. The worst storm the region suffered apparently was in 1876 when a ferocious cyclone worsted the region, killing tens of thousands. In more recent times, it was Cyclone Aila of 2009 that left thousands homeless and killed more than a 100 people.
Packing winds of up to 180 kmph—130 kmph in Kolkata at its peak—Cyclone Amphan has undoubtedly caused immense damage. As the state counts the losses it suffered in the few hours of nature’s fury, it still can consider itself lucky since the damage could have been infinitely worse.
As it is, Cyclone Amphan was an immensely powerful storm, and as predicted by the India Meteorological Department (IMD), had the ability to trigger storm surges by scooping up the sea with its high velocity winds. But for the customary uprooting of trees and poles, and the felling of not-to-strong structures that invariably result in some deaths, it is the storm surges that prove more deadly when powerful cyclones hit. Thousands die when gigantic sea waves come rushing in, sweeping everything in its way as it did during the Super Cyclone of 1999 that killed some 10,000 people in neighbouring Odisha.
Experts say Cyclone Amphan too had the intensity to exact similar damage. It did trigger storm surges—as high as 4.5 metres in certain places of the coastline—but the saving grace was the season and the timing of its landfall. If instead of 2.30 pm when it made its landfall, had it hit the shores in the evening coinciding with high tides, the storm surges could have been deadlier since the volume of water would have been far greater and the surges could have been as high as 6 metres.
“There are very many factors that determine the storm surges caused by a cyclone and their effect,” explains Dr Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, the director general of IMD, an experienced weather expert with first-hand knowledge of Odisha’s deadly Super Cyclone. They include the angle at which the storm lashes against the land. In simple terms, those that hit the land straight—Odisha’s Super Cyclone hit it at 90 degrees—are likely to cause larger storm surges. Cyclone Amphan is understood to have hit the shores at 100 degree and had the potential to cause havoc.
But what possibly turned out to be small mercy was the time of the year it struck. It’s summer—the time of the year when rivers and creeks are dry. So the storm surges that Amphan generated were possibly quickly absorbed. That was not the case during the Super Cyclone though. It occurred in October, months after the monsoon, and the state’s waterways were already full to the brim. The surges found no natural drainage and therefore swept over the land. Thousands died as the sea travelled inland—as much as 22 km—in Ersama of the state’s Jagatsinghpur district with the waves washing away everything that unfortunately came in its course.
It will be days before the exact extent of damage by Cyclone Amphan will be ascertained. News from the state’s interiors, particularly at a time when communication have been hit by the rampaging cyclone, will expectedly take time to arrive. But chief minister Mamata Banerjee has already revised the toll upwards, saying some 72 people have been killed in Thursday’s storm.
For all practical purposes, the final toll could be higher with details of how exactly the storm surges played out in the state’s far-flung coastline yet to be gathered. One can only hope that they did not swamp habitations and sweep them away. Better disaster preparedness of recent years that was sorely missing a few decades ago also gives hope of the scale of actual damage being minimised. The country today has elaborate drills for disaster management, and though far from perfect, some 4.5 lakh people were reportedly evacuated to safety before Cyclone Amphan arrived.
Battered and bruised, West Bengal was unfortunate to find itself in its path. But if the storm surges haven’t wreaked havoc as it could have, the state can only consider itself lucky since the cyclone arrived in summer, that too a few hours early. Though terrible, Cyclone Amphan could easily have been more catastrophic.