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Indian rescuers hunt 51 missing after cyclone sinks barge off west coast

A motorcyclist passes under damaged electric pole after Cyclone Fani passes in Puri district near of Odisha, India, on Friday, May. 5, 2019. Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

AHMEDABAD/MUMBAI, May 19 (Reuters) - Naval vessels and aircraft scoured the waters off India's west coast on Wednesday after the most powerful cyclone in more than two decades battered the region, sinking a barge and killing 22 aboard, authorities said.

By Summit Khanna and Aishwarya Nair

Cyclone Tauktae unleashed waves of up to 25 feet (7.6 m) offshore before it hit the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat during the past two days, leaving a trail of destruction that killed 61 others, authorities said.

The search for the 51 still missing from the barge accident will run through the day, navy spokesman Mehul Karnik told Reuters.

“The search and rescue effort continues,” he said in a statement.

The barge, with 261 people on board, sank after the storm smashed into the Bombay High oilfield near the financial capital of Mumbai, where India‘s biggest offshore oil rigs are located.

The navy said 188 people had been rescued from the barge contracted to state-run energy explorer Oil and Natural Gas Corp .

“No one would have had survived if not for the help that came…We are thankful they saved our lives,” one survivor told Reuters TV partner ANI.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an aerial survey of the damage in his home state of Gujarat on Wednesday, the state government said.

Cyclone Tauktae has weakened since making landfall in Gujarat on Monday, when it packed gusts of up to 210 kph (130 mph), and is expected to lose strength during the day, weather officials said.

It ripped out power pylons, damaged about 16,500 homes and blocked more than 600 roads, piling pressure on authorities battling a massive spike in COVID-19 infections and deaths amid an overstretched health network.

Gujarat, which was among the states hardest hit by the second wave of the virus, will resume its vaccination effort from Thursday, after a three-day suspension over cyclone, a state health official, Jai Prakash Shivahare, told Reuters.

Wall collapses, electrocution incidents and falling trees were responsible for most of the state’s 45 cyclone deaths.

“The death toll from the state could go up,” said a senior official, who sought anonymity.

Work has begun to restore power and clear roads, but some areas were still cut off, officials said.

“Mobile phone networks are still down in many areas, and I don’t think they will be restored by today,” Aayush Oak, the top official in the district of Amreli, told Reuters.

Agriculture in the state has also probably suffered, including its major mango-growing belt. (Additional reporting by Nigam Prusty in New Delhi; Writing by Devjyot Ghoshal and Nupur Anand; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Himani Sarkar)

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