A monster cyclone battered swathes of the vast nation, sending huge waves crashing onto its shores, turning streets into rivers and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee.

Trucks are stranded on a flooded highway near Diu on May 18, 2021.
Trucks are stranded on a flooded highway near Diu on May 18, 2021. (AFP)

A monster cyclone is lashing India, with powerful winds and driving rain leaving at least 20 people dead, and interrupting the vaccine programme the country urgently needs to get its spiralling Covid-19 outbreak under control.

Cyclone Tauktae battered swathes of the vast nation, sending huge waves crashing onto its shores, turning streets into rivers and forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee.

An uprooted tree blocks a highway near Diu on May 18, 2021, after Cyclone Tauktae blasted ashore in western India late May 17 with fierce winds and drenching rains that turned streets into rivers, disrupting the country's response to its devastating Covid-19 outbreak.
An uprooted tree blocks a highway near Diu on May 18, 2021, after Cyclone Tauktae blasted ashore in western India late May 17 with fierce winds and drenching rains that turned streets into rivers, disrupting the country's response to its devastating Covid-19 outbreak. (AFP)

The colossal swirling system, the biggest to hit the region in decades, claimed lives in Kerala, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat as savage winds swept through flimsy homes and uprooted trees and electricity pylons.

Mumbai authorities closed the airport and urged people to stay indoors, shifting about 600 Covid-19 patients in field hospitals "to safer locations", while sea levels swelled as high as three metres (10 feet) near the seaside town of Diu.

The Indian navy is working to rescue crew members from a sunken barge and a second cargo vessel that was adrift off the coast of Mumbai.

The navy said it had rescued 177 people of the total 400 on the two barges in the Arabian Sea. Three frontline warships were part of the rescue operations and were scouring seas, the Navy said.

Both barges are owned by Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, the largest crude oil and natural gas company in India.

Tauktae made landfall in Gujarat on Monday as an Extremely Severe Cyclonic Storm packing gusts of up to 185km/h, the Indian Meteorological Department said. It had been downgraded to a Very Severe Cyclonic Storm by Tuesday morning.

Villagers try to cross fallen down electricity cable on a bridge near Diu on May 18, 2021.
Villagers try to cross fallen down electricity cable on a bridge near Diu on May 18, 2021. (AFP)

Covid catastrophe 

The deadly weather system has exacerbated India's embattled response to a coronavirus surge that is killing at least 4,000 people daily, and pushing the health system to breaking point.

Around 200,000 people were evacuated in Gujarat, where all Covid-19 patients in hospitals within five kilometres of the coast were also moved.

Authorities there scrambled to ensure there would be no power cuts in the nearly 400 designated Covid hospitals and 41 oxygen plants in the area.

READ MORE: Top India virologist resigns after differences with Modi govt

Waves lash over onto a shoreline in Mumbai on May 17, 2021.
Waves lash over onto a shoreline in Mumbai on May 17, 2021. (AFP)

Chief minister Vijay Rupani told reporters over 1,000 Covid hospitals in coastal towns have been provided with generators.

"Besides the daily requirement of 1,000 tonnes of oxygen in Gujarat per day, an additional stock of 1,700 tonnes has been secured and could be used in case of emergency," Rupani said.

Virus safety protocols such as wearing masks, social distancing and the use of sanitisers would be observed in the shelters for evacuees, officials added.

The state also suspended vaccinations for two days. Mumbai did the same for one day.

Waves lash over onto a shoreline in Mumbai on May 17, 2021.
Waves lash over onto a shoreline in Mumbai on May 17, 2021. (AFP)

Terrible double blow 

Thousands of disaster response personnel have been deployed to help with the fallout from Tauktae, while units from the coast guard, navy, army and air force have been placed on standby.

"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," said Udaya Regmi from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

The organisation said it was helping authorities to evacuate people most at risk in coastal areas, providing first aid, masks "and encouraging other critical Covid-19 prevention measures".

READ MORE: India censors critical tweets as Covid-19 crisis escalates

A damaged part of the BKC Jumbo Covid-19 coronavirus vaccination centre is pictured after a portion of the entrance hallway was blown away by the strong winds from cyclonic storm Tauktae in Mumbai on May 17, 2021.
A damaged part of the BKC Jumbo Covid-19 coronavirus vaccination centre is pictured after a portion of the entrance hallway was blown away by the strong winds from cyclonic storm Tauktae in Mumbai on May 17, 2021. (AFP)

Last May, more than 110 people died after "super cyclone" Amphan ravaged eastern India and Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal.

The Arabian Sea previously experienced fewer severe cyclones than the Bay of Bengal but rising water temperatures because of global warming was changing that, Roxy Mathew Koll from the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology told AFP.

"(The) Arabian Sea is one of the fastest-warming basins across the global oceans," he said.

READ MORE: Super cyclone to sweep over Bangladesh and India

Source: AFP