India's Gujarat state braces for most severe cyclone in over two decades


People move a fishing boat to a safer place along the shore ahead of Cyclone Tauktae in Veraval in the western state of Gujarat, India, May 17, 2021. REUTERS/Amit Dave

Ahmedabad (Reuters) -Nearly 150,000 people were moved from their homes in the Indian state of Gujarat to safety on Monday and authorities closed ports and a main airport as the most intense cyclone in more than two decades roared up the west coast.

Cyclone Tauktae has killed at least 12 people and left a trail of destruction as it brushed past the coastal states of Kerala, Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra, authorities said. It was set to make landfall in Gujarat late on Monday.

"This will be the most severe cyclone to hit Gujarat in at least 20 years. This can be compared with the 1998 cyclone that hit Kandla and inflicted heavy damage," state revenue secretary Pankaj Kumar told Reuters.

The 1998 cyclone killed at least 4,000 people and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. The latest cyclone piles pressure on local administrations already struggling with a high caseload of COVID-19 infections.

"This cyclone is a terrible double blow for millions of people in India whose families have been struck down by record COVID infections and deaths. Many families are barely staying afloat," said Udaya Regmi, South Asia head of Delegation, International Federation of Red Cross, in a statement on Monday.

Earlier on Monday India reported 281,386 new coronavirus infections over the last 24 hours, while deaths rose by 4,106..

Regmi said the potential impact of this "monster storm" was frightening, adding that the Indian Red Cross Emergency team was working with authorities and aiding evacuations.

'EXTREMELY SEVERE'

The India Meteorological Department (IMD) categorized the storm, which formed in the Arabian Sea, as an "extremely severe" storm, upgrading it from the "very severe" category.

The financial hub of Mumbai was lashed with heavy rain and strong winds as Cyclone Tauktae headed north, forcing authorities to suspend operations at the city's airport and to close some main roads due to flooding.

A Reuters witness saw trees uprooted and stranded cars and buses.

The cyclone brought gusts of up to 210 kmph that would put it on par with a Category 3 hurricane, rating it one level below the IMD's super cyclone category.

As well as the 12 deaths reported in Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka, 28 fishing boats were missing, a coastguard official told Reuters.

Gujarat's state administration moved nearly 150,000 people from coastal communities and deployed more than 50 disaster response teams.

The Gujarat Maritime Board, the state’s port regulator, directed hoisting of signals VIII to X, indicating great danger, at ports in the state. India's largest private port at Mundra suspended operations for the day.

Authorities also fretted about the state's Asiatic lions, an endangered species found only in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat where the cyclone is expected to inflict most damage.

"There are around 40 lions in some patches in coastal Saurashtra, and we are monitoring them. Some lions have already moved to higher grounds. We are keeping fingers crossed, and praying the lions will be safe," Shyamal Tikadar, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests in Gujarat, told Reuters.

Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani said all measures were being taken to deal with the situation.

"These are special circumstances. The administration is busy with the COVID-19 challenges, and is now gearing up to deal with the impact of the cyclone," said Rupani.

(Reporting by Sumit Khanna in Ahmedabad, Rajendra Jadhav and Aishwarya Nair in Mumbai; Writing by Nupur Anand; Editing by Euan Rocha, Robert Birsel, Gareth Jones)

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