NEW DELHI — A powerful cyclone slammed into India’s coast Wednesday afternoon, striking the commercial hub of Mumbai, lashing beach towns with heavy rain and strong winds, and pushing thousands of people into emergency shelters.
Cyclone Nisarga made landfall with unusual force in the state of Maharashtra, home to Mumbai, a city of about 20 million. The region rarely experiences cyclones, and the last storm to threaten Mumbai with such intensity was more than 70 years ago.
Uprooted trees crashed into parked cars, and local television news reports showed cargo ships struggling to navigate choppy waters. But as the cyclone moved inland, passing over Mumbai in the afternoon, the authorities said the city may have averted the worst. There have been no immediate reports of casualties.
Efforts to blunt the cyclone’s destruction were threatened by the coronavirus outbreak. Mumbai, which sits on a narrow peninsula, is struggling to contain a rising number of infections, and more than 100 Covid-19 patients had been evacuated from a makeshift hospital to higher ground.
The city is densely populated and low-lying, making it particularly vulnerable, and a lockdown to contain the virus is still in effect. The cyclone is “more tragic news,” said Anil Parab, a minister with Maharashtra’s governing Shiv Sena party.
South Asia has considerable experience preparing for cyclones, which are referred to as hurricanes in the Atlantic and the northeastern Pacific. Last month, about three million people were evacuated when another storm, Cyclone Amphan, struck eastern India and Bangladesh, killing more than 80 people.
As Cyclone Nisarga moved closer to India Wednesday morning, Uddhav Thackeray, the chief minister of Maharashtra, ordered Mumbai’s residents to stay home for two days and the city’s airport was closed. Officials said they had evacuated up to 65,000 people from several coastal districts in the state.
In the neighboring state of Gujarat, which was also in the storm’s path, the authorities said they had evacuated tens of thousands of people from coastal areas and provided them with shelter.
The storm, powered by unusually warm water in the Arabian Sea, made landfall around 1 p.m. near the town of Alibag, about 30 miles south of Mumbai, with top wind speeds as high as 75 miles an hour.
In recent years, India has significantly improved its disaster response capabilities, drafting meticulous evacuation plans and building thousands of emergency shelters.
But many storm facilities have recently been converted into Covid-19 quarantine centers, stretching state resources thin, particularly in Maharashtra and Gujarat, the Indian states hit hardest by the coronavirus.
When Sunil Deshpande, a fisherman in the Raigad district of Maharashtra, arrived at a shelter on Tuesday, government officials told people to maintain social distancing, but the building was so crowded that doing so was “nearly impossible,” he said.
“When we left home it was already raining,” he said. “The sea looked rough and angry.”