Hours before Cyclone Amphan made landfall on May 20, it was impossible to imagine the devastation it would cause.
“It had started raining since the morning, with strong, swift gusts of wind,” said Meghna Nayak, who lives in a third-floor apartment in Kolkata’s Ballygunge area. “Then suddenly things escalated in terms of sound. It was unlike anything we’d ever heard. It was an almost human noise, a shrieking, wailing. It reached a peak as a window next to Ma’s bed shattered.”
As mother and daughter struggled to sweep up the glass, the wind lifted the jagged pieces, which were soon flying around the room. The rest of the evening was a losing battle against the elements. They tried to block the window with what defences they could muster – cardboard, a square of marble, a polythene bag.
Purnima Karmakar, who lives in a tenement in the New Alipore Camp in South Kolkata, was fighting a similar battle. A window had shattered, spraying glass all over her one-room apartment and then letting in gouts of water. As the water levels rose on the road, it flooded into her room as well, drenching the clothes and bedding, the meagre stocks of rice and wheat flour she stored under her bed.
“The moment I managed to clear some water, it flooded in again,” she said. Karmakar, her husband and her teenage daughter stayed up till 3am throwing out water. As the water subsided, the rats and cockroaches invaded. Twelve days ago, their street had been declared a coronavirus containment zone and sealed with bamboo barricades. Residents were to be quarantined for 14 days. With the storm, all thoughts of the virus have been cast to the winds.
Over 28 hours later, both Karmakar in New Alipore and Nayak in Ballygunge sat in darkness. The cyclone had broken electricity poles, ripped out wires and entangled them with the branches of uprooted trees, cutting off the power supply. Nayak and her mother were also without water as the storm had torn off the pipes. Large swathes of the city remained without water and electricity on the evening of May 21.
The worst storm in a lifetime
“I have experienced the ‘78 floods, which were terrible, devastating Calcutta, I’ve gone through Aila and Fani and Bulbul,” said Nayak’s mother, Anindita Ray, reeling off the names of cyclones past. “But this was something else altogether. I don’t think I’ve actually been so scared.”
The most severe cyclone in recent memory had Aila, which had ripped through the region in 2009, killing hundreds in Bengal and neighbouring Bangladesh, displacing over a million people and decimating the Sunderbans, the mangrove forests in the Gangetic delta. But where Aila had hit Kolkata at 103 kilometres per hour, Amphan notched up 133 kilometres at Dum Dum, on the eastern edges of the city.
Dum Dum and adjoining areas in North 24 Parganas district are believed to be the worst affected in the city. Footage of a submerged Dum Dum airport, with hangars caved in and aircraft drowning, went viral on social media.
Even mobile connectivity is patchy here. Sayantani Barman, a PhD student who lives in Kestopur, close to the Dum Dum airport, said an Airtel phone tower next to her house had been bent by the storm. Through May 21, she had been without telephone connectivity, unable to reach her parents in south Kolkata. Even though connectivity returned in the evening, it was fluctuating.
“Last night, we heard a burst like lightning,” said Barman on May 21. “A transformer had burst. We think it was ours, as we have had no electricity for 28 hours now.”
City of fallen trees
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced that 72 deaths had been reported so far. At least 15 of them are from Kolkata. Most deaths are thought to be caused by falling trees crushing people to death. But with phone lines cut and many areas inaccessible, the full extent of the damage is yet to be revealed.
Early morning on May 21, Dhruv Sharma, a resident of Ballygunge Circular Road, traced the familiar route from his home to his office. He picked his way through trees collapsed across arterial roads in the heart of Kolkata – Hazra, Ballygunge, Maddox Square. The normally bustling route had turned into a desolation, bird calls replacing the sound of traffic.
Videos on social media appeared to show the landmark Park Street area stripped of trees as well as a ravaged and flooded College Street, famous for its book shops. Electricity could not be restored in some areas because the power lines were tangled up with branches. But the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, Nayak said, had its hands full and encouraged residents to make their own arrangements to clear the trees.
A deathly silence
On May 21, a despairing Banerjee also said “almost 99% of South Bengal has been destroyed”. These include the Sundarbans, which were left devastated for years after Aila, embankments breached and freshwater lakes turned salty. Over a decade after the storm, the increased salinity in the fields had forced farmers there to change what they grow. A day after Amphan, however, there was deathly silence from the Sundarbans, as most phone lines had gone dead.
Amphan had made landfall between the coastal town of Digha and Bangladesh’s Hatiya Island, close to the Sunderbans. Several areas in the southern edges of Bengal also remained cut off on May 21. Nayak, who designs her own line of clothes, had not been able to reach tailors in Diamond Harbour district, close to the delta. Barman was unable to reach relatives in Jaynagar, a town in South 24 Parganas.
Before the cyclone hit, thousands in these low-lying areas of West Bengal had been sheltered in school buildings. A few reports trickling in gave intimations of large-scale destruction – thousands of homes had been flattened and at least one jetty had collapsed. According to the Telegraph, one resident of the Sundarbans said Amphan was “the worst storm in living memory”.