A storm in the Arabian Sea off India’s west coast has intensified into a severe cyclone, gathering speed as it barrels towards India’s financial capital of Mumbai, home to more than 20 million people.
Cyclone Nisarga was forecast to drop heavy rains and winds gusting up to 120km (75 miles) per hour when it makes landfall on Wednesday afternoon as a category 4 cyclone near the coastal city of Alibagh, about 98km (60 miles) south of Mumbai, India’s meteorological department said.
At least 100,000 people, including some coronavirus patients, were moved to safer locations according to officials on Tuesday.
Indian media reports said Nisarga is the worst cyclone to hit the region in more than a century, raising concerns about readiness in Mumbai and neighbouring areas.
The cyclonic storm in the Arabian Sea “is very likely to intensify into a Severe Cyclonic Storm during next 6 hours,” the meteorological department said on Wednesday.
The cyclone also threatened to worsen prospects for an economic turnaround as a nine-week-long government-imposed coronavirus lockdown began to ease this week.
India’s largest container port, Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT), on the outskirts of Mumbai, was also ordered to shut for 24 hours, the port said in a statement.
#WATCH Cyclone Nisarga has become a severe cyclonic storm, it’s 200km away from Mumbai. The cyclone is moving northeasterly towards Alibag in Raigad. The severe cyclonic storm is likely to cross south of Alibag between 1 pm to 3pm:IMD Mumbai,Maharashtra; Visuals from Alibag Beach pic.twitter.com/P2GfsecdNr
— ANI (@ANI) June 3, 2020
Area grappling with pandemic
The storm, expected to bring heavy rains, comes as the area grapples with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Maharashtra and Gujarat states have reported about 44 percent of India’s 200,000 COVID-19 cases nationwide, and 61 percent of all virus deaths.
The metropolis of Mumbai is already struggling with the highest number of coronavirus cases with more than 41,000 infections.
Local news reports have shown an overwhelmed hospital system in Mumbai, with patients resting on hospital floors until beds become available and bodies left in wards.
Maharashtra Chief Minister, Uddhav Balasheb Thackeray, said on Twitter that residents in Mumbai’s expansive slums had been ordered to evacuate, though it was not immediately clear if shelters had been set up.
He also said some 150 coronavirus patients had been moved out of a hospital near the city’s beachfront.
Extra care is being taken to prevent disruption to the power supply as thousands of patients undergo treatment in hospitals throughout the region, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) officials said.
In Maharashtra’s Palghar district, more than 21,000 villagers were being evacuated, local media reported, citing officials.
Cyclones often skirt densely populated Mumbai, though every year during torrential rains of the June-September monsoon season roads are submerged, and the suburban railway service that serves millions of people comes to a halt.
But the city has rarely faced the brunt of cyclones – the last severe storm to hit the city struck in 1948, killing 12 people and injuring more than 100.
Nisarga is also expected to hit neighbouring Gujarat state, with nearly 79,000 people to be evacuated from coastal regions by early Wednesday, Gujarat relief commissioner Harshad Patel told reporters.
Patel said 18 districts across the state would experience heavy rainfall and strong winds of up to 110kph (65mph).
“In wake of the coronavirus outbreak, all standard operating procedures are being followed at the temporary shelters which have been sanitised and instructions have been issued on following safe distancing,” Arpit Sagar, an official in Valsad, told the AFP news agency.
The NDRF has mobilised 32 teams, and a total of 1,500 men are ready in the two states to help with evacuations and relief.
Nisarga is the second cyclone to strike India in a little over a week. On May 21, Cyclone Amphan battered the country’s eastern coast including Kolkata, and neighbouring Bangladesh, killing more than 100 people and leaving a trail of destruction.
Although post-monsoon flooding is common in Mumbai in the fall, some experts fear the city is not prepared for the strong winds and storm surges that come with a cyclone.
“There’s been no test of how the city does in a cyclone,” said Adam Sobel, a climate scientist at Columbia University who has studied the risk to Mumbai. “It just makes me nervous.”