Cyclone Hits India On Deadliest Day Of Pandemic

May 18, 2021
Originally published on May 18, 2021 7:35 am

MUMBAI — India can't catch a break.

On the same day the country confirmed its highest-ever daily death toll from COVID-19, it was also hit by a deadly storm. Cyclone Tauktae barreled into India's west coast overnight packing wind gusts of up to 130 miles per hour — some of the strongest on record — before weakening over land later Tuesday.

Crews in orange hazmat suits patrolled coastal areas with megaphones, urging hundreds of thousands of residents to move to higher ground. More than 200,000 people were evacuated from their homes in the western state of Gujarat. Hundreds of COVID-19 patients were also shifted from coastal wards in Mumbai to other hospitals farther inland.

Cyclones are more common on India's east coast over the Bay of Bengal. But forecasters say climate patterns are changing, and this one hit several states on India's west coast along the Arabian Sea: Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra, Gujarat. It was the fiercest storm to hit that region in decades.

At least 16 people were killed by flying debris, building collapses and flooding. A search and rescue operation is underway for dozens of barge workers missing off Mumbai's coast.

At least 177 workers have been rescued by Indian navy helicopters in "extremely challenging circumstances," the navy tweeted.

Coastal slums are flooded, and electricity lines down. Relief efforts have been complicated by coronavirus lockdowns.

"You have to evacuate [people] in a certain way because you do not want COVID infections on your hands post-cyclone," India's disaster relief chief, Satya Pradhan, told local media.

One of the biggest concerns remains ensuring a constant electricity supply to COVID-19 hospitals and industrial plants generating and bottling medical oxygen.

Tauktae weakened into a "severe cyclonic storm" on Tuesday afternoon, India's Meteorological Department tweeted.

Also Tuesday, India's Health confirmed 4,329 deaths from COVID-19 — the country's deadliest single-day toll since the pandemic began. It also confirmed 263,533 new coronavirus cases, down from more than 400,000 a day earlier this month.

Scientists say that those tallies are likely vast undercounts and that it's unclear when India's wave may peak because testing is so low in rural areas.

NPR producer Sushmita Pathak contributed to this report from Hyderabad, India.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We heard a reference there to India's struggle against the pandemic. That is not India's only calamity just now. A cyclone has struck parts of India. Cyclone is the general name for what Americans usually call a hurricane. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from Mumbai.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Screaming).

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: A woman screams as she watches a construction crane topple over in southern Gujarat, where Cyclone Tauktae made landfall last night. It was carrying wind gusts of up to 130 miles an hour, some of the strongest on record for this region.

GP SHARMA: First storm to affect so many districts, so many states.

FRAYER: Forecaster G.P. Sharma told local media that cyclones are more common on India's east coast over the Bay of Bengal. But climate patterns are changing. This one hit several states along the west coast.

SHARMA: This will go in the history as one of the strongest storms which caused that much of the damage.

FRAYER: And relief efforts are complicated under coronavirus lockdown. India's disaster relief chief, Satya Pradhan, told local media that it's difficult to evacuate people while social distancing.

SATYA PRADHAN: So you have to evacuate in a certain way because you don't want COVID infection on your hands.

FRAYER: Yesterday, rescuers in bright orange protective suits patrolled streets with megaphones...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Shouting).

FRAYER: ...Urging hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate from low-lying areas. Among those evacuated were COVID-19 patients, shifted to hospitals farther inland.

Here in Mumbai, fierce winds sheared off part of the NPR bureau's roof. Lighter winds and rain continue. The road outside is blocked by several downed trees, but miraculously, the power is still on.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Shouting).

FRAYER: Hundreds of workers have been rescued from barges off Mumbai's coast, but others are still missing. Fishing boats have been grounded, vaccination centers shut. One of the biggest concerns is also maintaining electricity, not only for people's homes, but also for industrial plants generating oxygen for COVID patients. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai.

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