BHUBANESWAR/KOLKATA: India began evacuating thousands of villagers and halted port operations ahead of a cyclone expected to hit its east coast this week, officials said on Monday, piling pressure on emergency services grappling with the coronavirus pandemic.
The cyclone, expected to make landfall on Wednesday, comes as India eases the world's longest lockdown, imposed in April against the virus, which has infected more than 96,169 people and killed 3,029.
The states of Odisha and West Bengal sent disaster management teams to move families from homes of mud and thatch to places of shelter from the severe cyclonic storm, Amphan, which is expected to gain strength in the next 12 hours.
"We have to evacuate people from low-lying areas, and protect them from the coronavirus too," said a senior official of India's home ministry who sought anonymity.
"It's not an easy task."
The cyclone season usually runs from April to December, with severe storms forcing the evacuations of tens of thousands, causing widespread death and damage to crops and property, both in India and neighbouring Bangladesh.
Authorities at the port of Paradip in Odisha ordered ships to move out to sea to avoid damage as the cyclone formed over the Bay of Bengal was likely to intensify into a super cyclonic storm.
"Operations have been wound down," said Rinkesh Roy, chairman of the Paradip Port Trust. "We are clearing the port."
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to hold a meeting in New Delhi, the capital, to plan how to mitigate damage and injuries.
"The extremely severe cyclonic storm 'Amphan'...is likely to gain more strength and intensify further into a super cyclonic storm in the next 12 hours," weather officials said in a statement, forecasting heavy rain in eastern and southern areas.
India, with a coastline of 7,516 km (4,670 miles), gets hit by more than a tenth of all the world's tropical cyclones, the bulk of them hitting its eastern coast around the Bay of Bengal.