NEW DELHI — More than 80 people were killed by the powerful cyclone that slammed into India and Bangladesh on Wednesday, wiping out thousands of homes and drenching low-lying areas in torrential rain, officials said on Thursday.
Many of the dead were crushed by falling trees, electrocuted by downed wires or buried inside collapsing buildings as Cyclone Amphan pummeled the region, leaving a wide swath of devastation and grief.
The worst damage was reported in the Indian state of West Bengal, home to the metropolis Kolkata and many small, coastal villages where people live in shacks made from mud and sticks. The storm ripped through there, and though many villagers had evacuated beforehand, as the Indian authorities had urged, some had resisting packing into shelters because they feared the coronavirus.
West Bengal’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, one of India’s most powerful women, said she had “never seen such a disaster before.”
“At one end there is this small Covid virus that is terrifying people,” she said in a video conference. “This was another virus from the sky.”
Initially, the Indian authorities believed that a combination of an impressive evacuation effort and the weakening of the storm as it swirled onto land had spared more lives. On Tuesday and Wednesday, as the storm barreled up the Bay of Bengal, emergency crews had plied beach roads, shouting to people through megaphones to leave their homes and go to evacuation shelters. Around three million people in India and Bangladesh heeded the calls and moved to safety.
But Indian police officers had said that some villagers resisted, fearful of being stuck in a closed space with thousands of others at a time when India is struggling to contain the coronavirus contagion. Just this week, the country reported its 100,000th infection; many health experts believe the real numbers are far higher, but hidden because of India’s relatively low rates of testing.
On Thursday, as the day wore on, more stories of death flowed in.
Khanat Begum, a mother in a village in southern Bangladesh, was cooking when a blast of wind uprooted her neighbor’s tree, crashing it through the roof of her home. Her 13-year-old daughter was also inside the house. They both died.
Like many homes in Chandpur village, Ms. Begam’s house has been obliterated. The roads leading to the village were still blocked on Thursday.
“Our village has been reduced to rubble,” said Israar Kamal, a resident of Chandpur.
The cyclone weakened further as it moved into northeastern India on Thursday, with a wind speed of 37 miles per hour. The skies over many of the cyclone-damaged areas were clear.
Many villagers who had fled to cyclone shelters were still inside them; others were beginning to trickle back to their villages, only to find their homes smashed to the ground, scatterings of sticks and clumps of mud.
The authorities said it was too early to assess the full damage. Many areas were still inaccessible because of downed trees and blocked roads.
Among the reported deaths, the authorities said that 10 people had died in Bangladesh and at least 73 in India.
One of the hardest-hit places was the metropolis of Kolkata, one of India’s oldest cities, with around 15 million people in the greater urban area. The authorities said that the cyclone had killed at least 15 people there. On Thursday, its streets were littered with trees, and parked cars bumped into one another as workers struggled to clear the roads.
The eye of Cyclone Amphan had passed nearby, bringing with it 100-mile-an-hour winds and nearly nine inches of rain.
Videos on social media showed inundated airports, uprooted trees blocking roads and water cascading down the stairs of residential buildings. The runway of Kolkata’s airport, one of the busiest airports in India before the nationwide lockdown, was completely underwater and looked like a long pond.
“I was very scared when water started coming into my flat,” said Anushree Hamirwasia, 22, a student in Kolkata.
Mohammed Salah Uddin, 42, said that he and 10 others returned to his village in southern Bangladesh after crisscrossing uprooted trees and electricity wires on the streets. He said that the cyclone shelter he was in had been overcrowded and that people had not maintained a safe distance from one another, despite the threat of the coronavirus. Photographs from other shelters in Bangladesh showed huge crowds of people, few of them wearing masks.
“It looked scary,” Mr. Uddinsaid. “It is better to live in a destroyed home than catch the diseases.”
Belinda Wright, the executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, said there had been serious damage to the ecosystem of the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest and a wildlife refuge, home to endangered species including Bengal tigers. The cyclone made landfall very close to the Sundarbans, which stretches across the border of India and Bangladesh along the Bay of Bengal.
Villagers in that area, Ms. Wright said, told her that there wasn’t “a tree standing.”
But the villagers also relayed that no one had been injured in the storm.
“They don’t like leaving their homes,” Ms. Wright said, adding that because they know how “terribly dangerous” cyclones can be, most villagers in that area had followed the instructions to evacuate.
Rescue operations intensified on Thursday across the whole area. Jawhar Sircar, a retired government administrator who lives in Kolkata, said that in his part of the city, the situation was peaceful. Electricity was back on, though essential supplies like vegetables and fruits were still not available because street vendors were unable to move on the roads.
“The mood in Kolkata is like it is all over now,” he said.
Hari Kumar contributed reporting.