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Cyclone Tauktae strikes India’s west coast, disrupting crucial battle against coronavirus

An Indian policeman helps a driver cross the flooded street as Cyclone Tauktae hits Mumbai and nearby areas on May 17. (Str/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

NEW DELHI — A powerful cyclone struck India's west coast Monday, forcing officials to move hospitalized coronavirus patients and suspend vaccination campaigns as the storm disrupted nationwide efforts to contain a surge of infections in the country of 1.3 billion.

But by late Monday night, despite heavy physical damage in many seaside areas, no significant loss of life had been reported, and extensive advance measures had been put in place to protect hospitalized patients and oxygen supplies. Officials in Goa state confirmed two deaths, and there were unconfirmed reports of up to 10 additional related fatalities.

‘Extremely severe’ Cyclone Tauktae could be the strongest storm to hit region since 1998

Cyclone Tauktae, named for the harmless gecko lizard, pummeled coastal stretches along hundreds of miles, with driving rains and winds up to 90 miles per hour. News footage from Mumbai, the seaside financial capital of 20 million, showed waves leaping over urban sea walls and makeshift tented vaccine centers blown away in the gusts. By late afternoon, the heavy weather had subsided as the storm moved north. 

Around 9 p.m., Tauktae made landfall in Gujarat state farther up the coast. Officials in Gujarat said they expected a late-night surge when the ocean tide peaked and that the cyclone was the most severe they had experienced since 1998.

A senior official in Diu, an island off the Gujarat coast where the storm first struck, said that 1,200 people had been moved from low-lying areas and that extra oxygen had been brought to keep hospitalized covid-19 patients on life support. Reached by phone at 10 p.m., the official, Saloni Rai, said winds had already reached 80 miles per hour.

A cyclone on India's west coast has killed at least 19 people and damaged infrastructure, while heavy rains continued to lash some regions on May 18. (Video: Reuters)

In Porbandar, a hard-hit harbor and port area of Gujarat, officials said they had warned all fishing and commercial boat owners to return to shore and evacuated 25,000 people from 40 seaside villages. “We didn’t want to take any chances,” said one official, Ashok Sharma.

Indian meteorologists said the storm had reached “very severe” proportions on Sunday as it gathered strength at sea, generating winds as high as 115 miles per hour, but then quickly weakened after landing. It is expected to die down further as it moves inland, still dumping heavy rains in its path.

India’s coronavirus vaccination drive is faltering just when the country needs it most

National Disaster Response Force officials said they had made intensive preparations, such as placing emergency crews along major roads to clear fallen trees and ensure oxygen tankers could get through. Other teams stood on foot along beaches, holding emergency equipment. Coastal train service was suspended, and airports were shut.

“There will be trees uprooted and houses lost, but we will take it in stride. It is critically important that no lives are lost. We will do our best to ensure that,” S.N. Pradhan, director general of the response force, told a national news channel.

Despite such efforts, the cyclone’s arrival placed a heavy additional burden on the country as it struggled to gain control of the coronavirus spread and save the lives of seriously ill patients. The number of infection cases has slowed slightly, but it remains the highest in the world, with 2.4 million cases reported in the past week. The death toll also remains at record levels, with 28,000 deaths in the past week.

India’s coronavirus crisis spreads to its villages, where health care is hard to find

Vaccination campaigns were suspended in communities up and down the coast, and the southern states of Kerala and Goa, both hit by the cyclone Sunday, have already suffered from particularly difficult problems in combating the pandemic.

Both states have low rates of patients recovering from covid-19, and Goa has the highest rate of covid deaths per capita in the country. Also in Goa, more than 70 covid patients at Goa Medical College and Hospital died earlier this month for lack of oxygen, officials of the Goa high court reported after reviewing the case.

Taniya Dutta contributed to this report.