India cyclone death toll jumps as navy searches for dozens missing

By Sam Panthaky
The Indian military has launched search and rescue operations at sea for people missing after the storm hit. ©AFP

Mahuva (India) (AFP) - The number of fatalities from a major cyclone that slammed into India jumped to at least 91 on Wednesday as the navy searched for 49 people still missing, adding to the country's woes as it suffered a record number of Covid-19 deaths.

Cyclone Tauktae, which pummelled the western coast late Monday and left a trail of destruction, was the latest in what experts say is a growing number of ever-bigger storms in the Arabian Sea because of climate change warming its waters.

The defence ministry said Wednesday that Navy ships had rescued more than 600 people after waves up to eight metres (26 feet) high hammered offshore oil installations.

But 26 bodies were also recovered while planes and helicopters were still searching for 49 workers missing from one of several support vessels that slipped its moorings in the storm and sank.

M.K.Jha, head of the Naval Western Command, said the sea was so rough that they could not board life rafts.

Those rescued have "hope in their eyes but certainly, they are distressed...they have been battered by the sea conditions for multiple hours," Jha told the NDTV news channel.

'Lucky to be alive'

"We are lucky to be alive," one crew member told AFP after he disembarked from a navy destroyer in Mumbai.

"The Indian Navy was a godsend for us.They arrived in the nick of time.We were clinging onto the barge and luckily the life jackets helped us as the water was going over our head," he added.

Others told AFP they jumped from the vessel when they realised all eight anchors had broken in the ferocious storm.

The government late Wednesday launched a probe into why the vessels had become stranded during the storm.

Even before the cyclone made landfall in Gujarat state, with gusts up to 185 kilometres (115 miles) per hour, associated heavy rains and strong winds killed around 20 people in western and southern India.

Gujarat officials said Wednesday that the death toll in the state after the storm had risen to 45, with many killed by collapsing houses or walls and more fatalities expected.

"I have never experienced such intensity in my life," said a hotel owner in the town of Bhavnagar where the winds smashed windows on the seafront and sent trees and power lines toppling.

Some 238,000 people remained in shelters with more than 16,500 houses damaged and nearly 70,000 trees uprooted.Engineers were working to restore power to hundreds of thousands of people.

More than 15 percent of the total yearly production of salt in Gujarat -- India's biggest producer of the mineral -- was either washed away or unable to be harvested due to flooding, the Indian Salt Manufacturers Association told AFP.

At least a dozen endangered blackbuck Indian antelopes, as well as an unknown number of birds that nest around human habitation, have died, Gujarat's chief wildlife warden Shyamal Tikadar told AFP.

More than 600 farm animals including cows, buffalos and goats, were also killed, officials added.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted his government was "working closely with all the states affected by the cyclone", following a survey of the damage in his home state of Gujarat.

He announced financial aid for the region, as well as for the families of the victims and those injured.

Covid-19 crisis

Although the cyclone was one of the fiercest in decades, better forecasting than in previous disasters meant that 200,000 people in danger zones -- including hundreds of Covid-19 patients -- were moved to safety.

The deadly weather system hit as India's healthcare system struggled with a coronavirus surge that in the past 24 hours killed a record 4,529 people.

"This is one of the most powerful cyclones we've faced in India for decades, and after weeks of chaos and devastating loss of life caused by Covid-19, it could not have come at a worse time," said Santanu Chakraborty of the charity Save the Children.

The Arabian Sea previously experienced fewer severe cyclones than the Bay of Bengal but rising water temperatures because of global warming was changing that, experts say.

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