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Millions flee as monster cyclone churns toward India and Bangladesh

India Asia Cyclone
A disaster management volunteer carries a sick child as villagers on the Bay of Bengal coast are evacuated as a precaution against Cyclone Amphan at Bakkhali, West Bengal state, India, May 19, 2020. Mehaboob Gazi/AP

New Delhi — India and Bangladesh are evacuating more than 7 million people from low-lying areas as a monster cyclone churns over the Bay of Bengal toward the two Asian countries' coastlines. Amphan, now a "super cyclonic storm," is forecast to lose some strength before it makes landfall Wednesday afternoon local time, but will still likely slam the countries as an "extremely severe cyclonic storm" with winds gusting over 110 miles per hour. 

As the storm drags ocean water toward the coast and drops torrential rains further inland, flooding is likely to be the biggest threat from Cyclone Amphan — and it could have a dangerous impact on one of the most vulnerable refugee populations in the world. 

Heading for land

Amphan, which means "sky" in Thai, currently packs the punch of a Category 5 hurricane. It's expected to hit India's Bengal and Odisha states Wednesday afternoon before moving on to neighboring Bangladesh.

India is planning to evacuate 5 million people and Bangladeshi officials say they'll evacuate another 2 million from coastal areas. 

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A Cyclone Preparedness Programme (CPP) volunteer uses a megaphone to urge residents to evacuate to shelters ahead of the expected landfall of cyclone Amphan in Khulna, India, May 19, 2020. KAZI SHANTO/AFP/Getty

The India Meteorological Department (IMD) said Amphan was just less than 300 miles south of Odisha on Tuesday morning, advancing toward the coast at about 9 miles per hour. 

"It's very likely to move north-northeastwards and cross West Bengal-Bangladesh coasts between Digha in India and Hatiya Islands in Bangladesh, close to Sunderbans," the Indian weather agency said. 

In addition to hurricane-strength sustained winds and stronger gusts, the cyclone is expected to deliver heavy rainfall and storm surges up to 16 feet high in the two Indian states. 

"This is about as strong as cyclones get," said CBS News meteorologist and climate specialist Jeff Berardelli. "Even though the storm is forecast to weaken before landfall, the force of winds and pressure piling up ocean water underneath the storm's core will create enough momentum to make this a potentially catastrophic storm surge event for both eastern India and Bangladesh."

The high winds can cause immense damage to crops, trees, mud houses, communication and electric lines, while heavy rain could cause flooding even far from the coast.

Race to evacuate

Evacuations from low-lying areas was already well underway Tuesday. The Indian government was stockpiling food, drinking water and other essential supplies at multiple places in the two affected states in case areas are cut off by the extreme weather. 

India has deployed 41 teams from its National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) to the two coastal states, where they've gone street by street ordering people to flee for higher ground. Search and rescue teams from India's Army, Navy, and Air Force have also been put on standby. 

The cyclone threat comes as both countries, particularly India, battle a still-surging coronavirus epidemic. India now has more confirmed COVID-19 cases than any other Asian country. 

"It is for the first time that we are having to face two disasters simultaneously. We are facing a dual challenge of cyclone in the time of coronavirus," the NDRF's leader told reporters Tuesday. 

One of the biggest challenges will be evacuating people from the numerous Sunderbans, a series of islands nestled in a vast mangrove forest shared by India and Bangladesh. 

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A file photo shows mangrove trees submerged in the Sundarban delta, about 87 miles south of Calcutta, India. Scientists have warned of an alarming rise in temperatures in the Bay of Bengal due to climate change, which could inundate coastal islands, destroy mangrove forests and affect India's Sunderbans, home to the largest wild population of Bengal tigers and one million people. AP/Bikas Das

"The farmers will be reluctant to evacuate because there is an unsold agricultural harvest because of the coronavirus lockdown… and Sunderbans comes with its own infrastructural challenges," renowned Indian wildlife expert Dr. Anurag Danda, who has worked in the Sunderbans for decades, told CBS News. 

Meanwhile, the world's biggest refugee camp — home to more than 1 million Rohingya Muslim refugees — in Bangladesh coastal Cox's Bazar area, is also facing a potential serious risk from the storm. Earlier this week, the country reported the first coronavirus case inside the crowded camps.   

At least 15 die as Rohingya refugees' boat sinks

The current forecast track sees Amphan making landfall west of Cox's Bazar, but even if it sticks to that path and the camps avoid a direct blow, they're sure to be hit with heavy rains from the cyclone's outer bands, and the region is prone to deadly flooding. 

Teams from the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, were on standby for rescues if needed, but aid workers said no evacuations were planned from the camps as of Tuesday given the storm's predicted path, and the fact that many of the refugee shelters were previously moved up hills.  

Deadly history, worrying future

This is only the second super cyclone to form over the Bay of Bengal in two decades. In 1999, a super cyclone killed about 10,000 people as it slammed into Odisha.

"Since then better technology and government preparation have been able to significantly reduce casualties," said Berardelli, noting that the majority of the world's most deadly cyclones occur in the Bay of Bengal region.

"The Indian Ocean is warming, and we know that warm ocean water is the first, and perhaps the key ingredient for the formation of tropical cyclones, so the system is primed for more storms," Simon Wang a climatologist at Utah State University, told CBS News.  

Meteorologist weighs in on climate change and extreme weather

Berardelli agreed with that assessment, noting that the dual threat of larger storms bringing both salt water storm surge from the Bay of Bengal and also flash flooding from rains further inland, "is how climate change acts as a threat multiplier — with multiple emergencies having to be dealt with simultaneously. It is exactly what we expect in a warming world and one that nation's will need to come to terms with and learn to manage."

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