Up to 12 million people could face mass disruption from cyclone Phailin, which is expected to cause severe damage in eastern India after it made landfall on Saturday afternoon.
Three people have been declared dead and rain and winds of at least 137mph continued to lash the east coast on Saturday while hundreds of thousands of inhabitants fled to higher ground or cyclone shelters. The Indian government issued a red alert and warned that the storm, which fills most of the bay of Bengal, could inflict serious damage when it made landfall.
More than 600,000 people had been evacuated from India’s eastern coastline on Friday as cyclone Phailin was classified as a supercyclone.
Roads were all but empty on Saturday as high waves lashed the coastline of Orissa state, which will bear the brunt of the cyclone. By midafternoon, wind gusts were so strong that they could blow over grown men. Along the coast, seawater was pushing inland, swamping villages where many people survive as subsistence farmers in mud and thatch huts.
People gathered at mosques and temples in Odisha state praying that cyclone Phailin would not be as devastating as a similar storm that killed 10,000 people 14 years ago. Heavy rain pounded coastal villages in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh.
In the first reported deaths, two people were killed by falling trees while a third when the walls of her mud house collapsed.
“This is one of the largest evacuations undertaken in India,” said Shashidhar Reddy, the vice-chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority. The size of the storm made extensive damage to property more likely, he said. “Our priority is to minimise loss of life.”
In Donkuru, a fishing village in the south-eastern state of Andhra Pradesh that is expected to catch the eye of the storm, people said they hesitated to leave because they had small children, despite buses provided by the authorities to take them away.
In Behrampur, a town about 10 km (7 miles) inland from where the eye of the storm was expected to hit, the sky blackened quickly around the time of landfall, with heavy winds and rains pelting the empty streets.
The India Meteorological Department said Phailin was expected to cause an 11-foot (3.5m) surge in sea levels when it hit the coast.
In Odisha, families walked through the rain to shelters as gusts of wind snapped branches from trees, while tourists have left the popular beach resort of Puri.
The London-based Tropical Storm Risk consortium said the storm was in the supercyclone category and classed it as a category five storm, the strongest. The US navy’s weather service said wind at sea was gusting at 195mph.
Some forecasters likened its size and intensity to hurricane Katrina, which tore through the US Gulf coast and New Orleans in 2005. Its scale also stirred memories of a 1999 Indian storm when winds reaching speeds of 150mph battered Odisha for 30 hours.
The Odisha government has said it is now better prepared. Authorities warned of extensive damage to crops, village homes and old buildings, as well as disruption of power, water and rail services. Shelters were being stocked with rations and leave for government employees was cancelled.
A police official said a rescue effort had been launched for 18 fishermen stranded at sea four nautical miles from Paradip, a big port in Odisha, after their trawler ran out of fuel.
Paradip halted cargo operations on Friday. All vessels were ordered to leave the port, which handles coal, crude oil and iron ore. An oil tanker holding about 2m barrels of oil was also moved, an oil company source said.
The storm is expected to cause large-scale power and communications outages and shut down road and rail links, officials said. It’s also expected to cause extensive damage to crops.
Aid agencies were gearing up to provide relief.
Kunal Shah, the head of World Vision’s emergency response in India, said: “In a storm of this magnitude there is the potential for widespread damage to crops and livestock in the low-lying coastal areas and houses completely wiped away. So while we are praying this storm loses intensity, we’re also preparing.”
Save the Children said it is stockpiling emergency supplies including food, health and hygiene kits and tarpaulin sheets in India while Plan International said it is ready to intervene.
Oxfam said that in villages where it works, people have been evacuated to safe shelters.
Its contingency stock of water sanitation materials is on standby and ready for deployment, and the Oxfam India humanitarian hub has staff on standby for assessment and initial immediate response in the affected areas.
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