By Sumit Khanna
AHMEDABAD, India (Reuters) -The Indian Navy mounted a massive air and sea rescue mission on Tuesday for 81 oil workers and crew whose barge sank in heavy seas following a powerful cyclone that tore up the west coast killing at least 19 people.
Around 180 of those on board the barge, off the coast of Mumbai, were rescued from the huge waves as it sank, the navy said.
The cyclone has piled up pressure on authorities at a time when India is grappling with a staggering rise in coronavirus cases and deaths as well as a shortage of beds and oxygen in hospitals.
“This is one of the most challenging search and rescue operations I have seen in the last four decades,” Murlidhar Sadashiv Pawar, Deputy Chief of Naval Staff, told Reuters partner ANI on Tuesday.
Navy spokesman Vivek Madhwal said waves were reaching 20 to 25 feet. “The winds are high and the visibility is low,” he said.
Three more barges have gone adrift near the Gujarat coast but the rescue operations were said to be under control.
Cyclone Tauktae, the most powerful storm to batter the west coast in two decades, ripped out power pylons, trees and caused house collapses killing at least 19 people, authorities said.
The storm made landfall in Gujarat state on Monday and is expected to weaken gradually into a deep depression overnight, the Indian Meteorological Department said.
Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani said 160 state roads have been destroyed, 40,000 trees uprooted and several houses damaged.
Navy spokesman Madhwal said five ships backed by surveillance aircraft were scouring the site of the sinking of the barge “P305” in the Bombay High oilfield, where the country’s biggest offshore oil rigs are located.
On Monday, the crew sent an SOS that the ship had lost control as the cyclone roared past Mumbai. Naval ships were deployed to the area and on Tuesday, as it started sinking, many of the crew were rescued from the sea.
The oilfields are around 70 km (45 miles) southwest of Mumbai. The barges are deployed by Afcons Infrastructure Limited, a construction and engineering company based in Mumbai, and were engaged in contract work awarded by Oil and Natural Gas Corp, country’s top exploration company.
Afcons did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment, while ONGC said in a statement it was extending help to the navy and coastguard in the rescue effort.
More than 200,000 people had been evacuated from their homes in Gujarat before Tauktae, packing gusts of up to 210 kph (130 mph), made landfall.
No damage has been reported at refineries located in Gujarat and sea ports that were expected to be in the storm’s path.
The Jamnagar refinery, the world’s biggest oil refinery complex owned by Reliance Industries, had reported no damage, a company spokesman told Reuters.
Operations at the Mundra port, India’s largest private port, have resumed, a port official said.
(Additional reporting by Aishwarya Nair and Sudarshan Varadhan; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani and Nupur Anand; Editing by Himani Sarkar, Alex Richardson and Nick Macfie)