NEW DELHI — A dreaded cyclone tore through eastern India and Bangladesh on Wednesday, knocking down trees, smashing countless shacks and killing at least several people, but, it appeared, causing less devastation than initially feared.
The combination of an impressive evacuation effort and the storm weakening as it swirled onto land seems to have spared many lives.
Just a few days ago, meteorologists were calling the cyclone, named Amphan, one of the most dangerous storms in decades. And preparations for it were complicated by the fact that the cyclone hit in the middle of the pandemic, with both India and Bangladesh locked down and experiencing an alarming rise in coronavirus infections.
Many villagers along India’s coast were apprehensive about rushing into packed emergency shelters, where they feared they would catch the virus. Hundreds of shelters weren’t even available because they had been converted into quarantine centers two weeks ago.
Still, by Wednesday evening, more than three million people had been whisked from their homes along the Bay of Bengal and were staying in shelters. The Bangladeshi authorities also managed to evacuate 520,997 animals, they said, including cows, goats, buffalo, chickens and ducks.
One of the worst-hit cities was Kolkata, once the capital of British India, which is home to many fragile buildings hundreds of years old. The eye of Cyclone Amphan passed close to the city, bringing with it 100-mile-per-hour winds and ropes of rain.
The storm split trees into pieces, exploded transformers, tipped over electricity poles and damaged many homes — unusual destruction for the city, which lies more than 50 miles inland from the Bay of Bengal and is typically spared major cyclone damage.
“It’s a pretty bad storm,” said Jawhar Sircar, a retired government administrator, speaking by telephone as rain lashed the windows of his house in south Kolkata. “Trees are falling. Flower pots are falling. Things are flying from here to there.”
Another Kolkata resident, Manu Bandyopadhyay, a contractor, was despondent about losing his ancestral home in a fishing village. His grandfather was a fisherman.
“If he were alive today,” Mr. Bandyopadhyay said, “he would have cried.”
As the cyclone bore down, humanitarian organizations were especially worried about the one million Rohingya refugees stuck in muddy camps in coastal Bangladesh, where they ended up after fleeing massacres in Myanmar a few years ago. Many of the refugees live on denuded hillsides in flimsy homes made from sticks and plastic tarps.
But the storm skirted that area, dumping it with heavy rains but not washing away homes, as many aid workers and refugees had feared.
“We are staying inside and praying to Allah that the cyclone doesn’t affect us,” said Enayetullah, who goes by one name and lives with his three children in the Kutupalong refugee camp, near the town of Cox’s Bazar.
The Indian and Bangladeshi authorities are getting good at large-scale coastal evacuations.
After a cyclone in 1999 killed thousands of people, both governments built hundreds of new emergency shelters. They aren’t picturesque — picture a bare two-story, peeling-paint, cement-block rectangular building on stilts, almost resembling a crab. But the structures, some designed by the faculty at one of India’s elite universities, the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, have proved stormworthy.
Officials have also tightened up their methods of getting the word out — through text messaging, television commercials and old-fashioned door-to-door pleas to evacuate.
All day Tuesday and Wednesday, emergency crews in orange jumpsuits and yellow hard hats plied the beach roads, urging people through megaphones to leave their homes and go to the evacuation shelters as an increasingly frothy sea pounded the sea walls and spilled into the roads.
“Do Not Go Out In The Storm,” said a message featured prominently on Indian television stations.
The cyclone made landfall around 4 p.m. near the Indian town of Digha, on the eastern coast, with wind speeds between 80 and 100 miles per hour.
Though damage assessments were still sketchy on Wednesday night as Amphan continued to churn into northeastern India, the authorities said several people had died, including an infant boy crushed after the wall of his mud hut crumbled and fell on him.
A Bangladeshi Red Crescent volunteer drowned after a rescue boat capsized during a rescue operation. At least two other deaths were reported in India media.
The cyclone washed away bridges connecting Indian islands to the mainland and left many areas without electricity or phone service, the West Bengal chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, told reporters Wednesday evening. She said that while a clearer picture of the devastation would emerge by Thursday, there had been at least seven deaths, The Associated Press reported.
But many residents said this was better than they had expected.
On Monday, Cyclone Amphan swept over the Bay of Bengal as the strongest cyclone ever recorded in the region. But by Tuesday a phenomenon called vertical wind shear — the shifting of winds with altitude — had disrupted the storm’s rotational structure, weakening it.
Amphan initially grew powerful because the waters it passed over were exceedingly warm, as high as 88 degrees in parts of the Indian Ocean. Warmer water provides more energy to fuel such rotating storms.
Climate change is raising ocean temperatures, but other factors, including natural variability, can play a role. While it is not possible to say whether any one specific storm like Amphan was made more powerful by climate change, scientists have long expected that tropical storms like it will increase in strength as the world warms.
The storm drenched the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest and a wildlife refuge, home to endangered species including Bengal tigers.
Belinda Wright, the executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, said that some of the villages on the fringes of the wildlife refuge had been badly hit, and that she received a panicked call Wednesday afternoon from a man she works with in a village on a remote island.
The man said dozens of people had holed up in a concrete shelter built on top of a school. Outside, trees had snapped, dead livestock were sprawled across the ground and huge waves threatened to destroy 12-foot high dikes that protected the village of mud huts from being completely obliterated.
If the dikes fail to hold, she said, “They don’t stand a chance.”
“He was very, very emotional,” Ms. Wright said. “I could hear children crying in the background. He said to me: ‘This might be the end. This might be the last time I talk to you.’”
But several hours later, Ms. Wright reached him.
“The embankment held,” she said. “He sounded extremely positive and sort of triumphant that he had survived.”
Suhasini Raj contributed reporting from Lucknow, India, and Henry Fountain from Albuquerque, N.M.