The Night a city waged a war with Cyclone Amphan
No measures could have prepared the people or the city for the loss of the magnitude of $13.6 billion and 118 casualties. The quant St Andrew’s Church on Brabourne Road, a 205-year-old church in Kolkata lost a part of its legacy to the cyclone. The black weathercock atop its slender spire was blown away in the fury. The church had survived two world wars, the Spanish flu (1918-1920), several cyclones and partition of the Indian subcontinent; but not Amphan.
The morning of 20th May 2020 was a bright day just like the earlier ones. The sun rose bright, but there was a promise of rain rising in its belly. The past week both print and digital media had forecasted the ruins of the fermenting cyclone in the Bay of Bengal. The city was reeling after being called out for its performance in COVID management and several concerns were being flagged. But for the intervening night of 20th May 2020, the world watched how the state would respond to the cyclone. Amphan, meaning the sky was due to strike in the late evening and everyone bracing for its aftereffects. Both the Governments of the adjoining states of West Bengal and Odisha have been repeatedly assuring the people that adequate measures had been taken.
India being a tropical country; and West Bengal and Odisha being so conveniently placed have been witnessing rising and regular cyclones. Odisha had sustained massive scale of damages last year on account of Cyclone Fani. Residents of Calcutta had barely been shaken and had enjoyed a spell of rain. Tropical cyclones tend to have devastating impacts with the greatest being damage to both life and property. This may not truly be from the windspeed per-se, but from secondary events such as storm surges, flooding, landslides and tornadoes. Fani had clocked 215 km/hr speed; damages were to the tune of $8.1 billion in addition to 89 casualties.
By late afternoon, the sky was turning a grim colour of grey. Supercyclone Amphan had struck the coastline between 4 and 6 pm IST; and rest became history witnessed by the world in pictures. Amphan slowed down after making the landfall; still it embodied enough fury to ravage and flatten the fertile and delta areas of Sundarbans and both the Paraganas. To contain the human toll, hundreds and thousands of people had been relocated to more pucca structures. It was supposed to be temporary. The cyclone uprooted all semblances of housing and life and cleared everything in its path to forage ahead.
Sundarbans, known to be a rare ecosystem and formed due to the confluence of three rivers which accounts for maintaining a delicate balance between flora and fauna, reported a damage sustained to the tune of 28% and ecosystem balance lost. Among immediate worries is the saline water inundating the land, leaving the farmers in despair and fishermen struggling. With indigenous farming practices being wiped out after each such cyclone hitting the region, this singular calamity poses a considerable loss being faced by each community. Be it agriculture or the honey-making communities, loss is that of in millions. Similarly, the Mangrove plantations would suffer again with salinity deluging the soil. Did I mention, even the Royal Bengal Tiger wasn’t spared? The magnificent beast too faced a loss of habitat. The fencing was ripped in three places but none of the big cats strayed into human settlements.
The cyclone guaranteed massive environmental degradation, but the loss endured by people in the form of existent infrastructure of their housing and livelihoods; even the tertiary facilities have been largely hit. With India in the midst of the pandemic and rising concerns of surging COVID cases and deaths, the cyclone brought the state to a grinding halt. ‘Kothaye fire jabo?’ (where do I return to?) was the echoed sentiment.
As for me, it began with the sensation of eeriness due to the winds howling outside and rains unforgivably lashing on the windows. Thankfully they never gave way. As a measure of preventing any mishap, the electricity board had switched off the electricity supply in Salt Lake and later the rest of the metropolis. A darkness had descended along with the fiery and piercing sounds of the winds outside. I quickly finished a cold and frugal dinner by the light of a candle. In some time, mobile connections were lost and communication was snapped. As the evening progressed, there seemed to be breaks and the loss of intensity; but I had no heart to open the windows to glance out. Tired, I slept off. It lasted a few more hours from what I read the next day.
The morning of 21st was a quintessential one – bright and shiny. As I woke up, I tried getting out of my bed only to pull back my feet. I had slept on my very own island! Water had gushed in through the cracks at night. My morning was spent in scooping out water. Life would not be normal for some (like me) for a few days with internet lines being affected and for many more for close to a month. Reports were coming on the scale of damages that the cyclone had caused in one night. As this is being written, the aftermath of the cyclone continues to haunt many.
Debates ensued whether the measures were enough; but it was an act of god. In hindsight, knowledge sharing from the Disaster Management techniques developed by the Odisha Government over decades to respond to natural calamities may have reduced loss of life. Kolkata and the affected districts limped back to life over time. But it begs to recognise the signs in future and advance capacities to respond. The Black Pagoda continues to shine the light that we can emerge victorious in the face of twin calamities.
Contributor: Amrita Paul
About our Writing Program Student
Amrita Paul is a Senior Programme Officer with the Prison Reforms Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. She has a Master’s Degree in Law (LL.M.) Human Rights from the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. The primary focus of her work is to target unnecessary and prolonged detention of undertrials and work towards systemic interventions to prevent it. She loves watching movies and sitcoms (when she has time), cooking and creating new recipes, reading Christie’s and murder mysteries and appreciating music.