Authorities have scrambled to evacuate people from the path of Amphan

Khulna (Bangladesh) (AFP) - Millions of people battened down Wednesday as the strongest cyclone in decades slammed into Bangladesh and eastern India, killing at least three and leaving a trail of devastation.

Authorities scrambled to evacuate more than three million people from low-lying areas, but the task was complicated by the need to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

As it made landfall, Cyclone Amphan tore through coastal villages, flattening mud houses, blowing off roofs, uprooting trees and laying waste to crop fields.

Map showing the forecast path of Cyclone Amphan as it heads across the Bay of Bengal on Wednesday.

In Bangladesh officials confirmed three deaths including a five year-old boy and a 75-year-old man, both hit by falling trees, and a cyclone emergency volunteer who drowned.

Two other fatalities were reported by Indian media, including an infant crushed when the mud wall of the family’s hut collapsed in heavy rain in Odisha state.

Houses “look like they have been run over by a bulldozer”, said Babul Mondal, 35, a villager on the edge of the Sunderbans, a vast mangrove forest area home to India’s biggest tiger population.

“Everything is destroyed.”

- Storm surges -

Amphan is the first “super cyclone” to form over the Bay of Bengal since 1999, and packed winds gusting up to 185 kilometres (115) per hour.

Forecasters also warned there could be storm surges of several metres.

Authorities were using extra shelter space to reduce crowding to protect people from coronavirus infection

Such walls of water can cascade several kilometres inland and are often the main killers in major weather systems.

Kolkata was battered by heavy rain and the muddy Hooghly river was rising under dark skies, while in the coastal resort of Digha, large waves were pounding the shore.

“Scores of trees and electricity poles have been uprooted,” hotel owner Partha Tripathi told AFP by phone. “There are washed up boats on the beach.”

Bangladesh’s low-lying coast, home to 30 million people, and India’s east are regularly battered by cyclones that have claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in recent decades.

Workers and villagers reinforced an embankment with sandbags

The 1999 super cyclone left nearly 10,000 dead in Odisha, eight years after a typhoon, tornadoes and flooding killed 139,000 in Bangladesh.

In 1970, half a million perished.

While the frequency and intensity of storms have increased – blamed partly on climate change – casualties have fallen thanks to faster evacuations, better technology and more shelters.

- Virus complications -

But Bangladesh authorities still fear Amphan will be the most powerful storm front since Cyclone Sidr killed about 3,500 people and caused billions of dollars in damage in 2007.

Amphan is pictured in a satellite image taken on May 18

Enamur Rahman, Bangladesh’s junior minister for disaster management, told AFP that 2.4 million people and over half a million livestock had been brought to shelter.

India has evacuated more than 650,000 in West Bengal and Odisha.

Because of coronavirus, authorities were using extra shelter space to reduce crowding, while also making face masks compulsory and setting aside isolation rooms.

Infection numbers are still soaring in both countries.

Sulata Munda, a tribal villager in Bangladesh, said she and fellow villagers had decided not to go to a shelter.

“We fear the cyclone, but we also fear the coronavirus,” the mother of four told AFP.

Amphan is only the second 'super cyclone' to form in the northeastern Indian Ocean since records began

At a school in the coastal town of Dacope where more than 200 locals were sheltered, masks were in short supply.

“The room is already packed and maintaining social distancing is impossible,” said Rumki Khatun, 25, clutching her baby.

Nearby, hundreds of people were trying to reinforce a creaky river dam. Local official Sheikh Abdul Kader said that if it broke, up to 50,000 people would be marooned.

“The dam must be protected,” he said.

- Rohingya refugee fears -

Although outside Amphan’s predicted path, there are fears for the almost one million Rohingya refugees in southeastern Bangladesh – most living in flimsy, makeshift shacks.

The first coronavirus cases were reported in the teeming camps last week, and by Tuesday there were six confirmed infections.

The UN said food, tarpaulins and water purification tablets were stockpiled, while authorities said the refugees would be moved to sturdier buildings if needed.

“We are fully prepared,” said Mahbub Alam Talukder, Bangladesh’s refugee commissioner.

There were also concerns for hundreds of Rohingya thought to be out at sea in rickety boats that have been denied entry by Thailand and Malaysia in recent weeks because of coronavirus restrictions.

burs-stu/fox