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Cyclone whispers past Bengal

Nov. 15: A tropical cyclone nearly as powerful as the 1999 Orissa monster “grazed” past Bengal tonight after a daylong scare and slammed into Bangladesh at 240km an hour.

“Bengal has been spared. It has grazed past our borders,” said G.C. Debnath, director of the weather section at the Alipore Met office. “There will be a residual impact but far less than what might have been had the cyclone hit.”

Thirty mud houses in Sagar Island, however, collapsed in their brush with Cyclone Sidr but no casualties were reported. Orissa’s coastline recorded strong winds and rain but little damage.

Debnath said Calcutta would have moderate to heavy rain tomorrow while the coasts may see somewhat rougher weather.

In Bangladesh, Sidr levelled thousands of houses, killed at least 28 people, uprooted trees and forced the evacuation of at least 650,000 people, providing a glimpse of what Bengal had been spared.

“It looks like the sea is coming to grab us,” a Bangladeshi coastal official told Reuters.

In Bengal, meteorologists had warned of 20-foot-high tidal waves and since evening, the government had evacuated thousands of people and warned fishermen and seaside tourists. The Union cabinet held an emergency meeting and the army and air force were asked to stand by.

The Calcutta Port pegged the danger signal at the highest level of 10, while Eastern and South Eastern Railway shut down several sections from 11pm till 5am tomorrow.

Met officials had at first said Sidr would hit Bengal between 9pm and 10pm but later revised the time to midnight, insisting it was too late to expect the cyclone to veer away. But it did – moving 100km eastwards off their predicted line.

It left T.K. Das Chowdhury of Behala fuming. “The Met department should check with ports and ships in the Bay of Bengal and give hourly bulletins instead of issuing sweeping warnings just to play it safe. It was tremendous harassment for people.”

L.R. Meena, deputy director-general of meteorology at Alipore, said: “We had to warn the government because it was a marginal case. We could not take any risk.”

Many tourists cancelled bookings. “Almost 65 per cent have been cancelled,” a hotel official in Shankarpur said.

The British, German and Japanese consulates warned their nationals and advised them to store water, food and medicines and keep flashlights and radio sets handy. Software firms arranged guesthouse rooms for staff and stocked up on food.

As tragedy-hit Nandigram braced for another round of evacuation, whispers of a strange “coincidence” did the rounds. On September 29, 1942, freedom fighter Matangini Hazra was shot dead by the Raj’s police in Tamluk, the gateway to Nandigram. On October 16 that year, a cyclone killed several thousand in undivided Bengal.

Sidr has been designated a category 4 cyclone, one notch below the highest category of 5. The Met office said it was the strongest cyclone over the Bay of Bengal since the “super-cyclone” of October 29, 1999, which struck Orissa at 260km an hour and killed at least 10,000 people, damaging 18 lakh houses and affecting 1.3 crore people.

“Sidr has a diameter of 450km. It is packed with clouds about 13km to 15km tall,” Meena said.

As it approached land, Calcuttans today woke up to an overcast sky. Around 11am, it began drizzling — off and on at first but steadily by evening.

The Met office had then predicted 250mm rain in the next 36 hours — which compares well with the 360mm the city had received over three days during the September 23-25 deluge.

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