India began assessing on Sunday the extent of the damage left in the wake of the strongest storm to hit the country in 14 years. But while Cyclone Phailin wreaked havoc upon property and infrastructure, the loss of life appeared limited after the mass evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people from what were to be the worst-hit areas.
The storm packed winds of more than 200 kph (125 mph) as it made landfall from the Bay of Bengal in the eastern state of Odisha on Saturday, tearing apart dwellings and uprooting trees.
There were fears that the huge storm would result in extensive casualties, with a similar cyclone in the same region in 1999 killing around 10,000 people.
However, the government of the state of Odisha said Sunday the death toll stood at just seven people, all of whom where killed as winds whipped the coast before the storm slammed in — four by falling trees, and one when the walls of her mud house collapsed.
The state of Odisha’s top rescue official said 860,000 people had been moved before the cyclone made landfall on Saturday evening, while at least another 100,000 were evacuated further south in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Residents were also evacuated from coastal regions of West Bengal state.
Reporting from New Delhi, FRANCE 24’s Mandakini Gahlot said officials seemed to have learnt the lessons from the 1999 storm, which devastated the region.
“On the whole, officials certainly seemed better prepared to handle the storm this time around,” she said. “For instance, warnings were issued 72 hours earlier, nearly a million people were evacuated in an efficient manner, storm shelters were well stocked.”
However, she warned: “We won’t know the true extent of the casualties until the rescue operation is in full swing.”
Many of those evacuated spent the night in shelters, some of which were built after the 1999 storm, while others took refuge in schools or temples, in what the National Disaster Management Authority called one of India’s largest evacuations.
There had been concern for 18 fishermen who had been out at sea as the cyclone bore down on the coast, but police said on Sunday that all of them had returned safely.
Truck driver Jayaram Yadav, who had been transporting eight cars halfway across India, huddled in the cab of his 28-tonne vehicle as wind howled around him on Saturday night.
“I was just thinking: it’s going to topple over — and then it did,” said Yadav, who survived unscathed as his cargo of vehicles was scattered across a coastal highway.
But while the death toll may have been kept to a minimum, the storm caused significant damage to property, farmland and infrastructure.
Tens of thousands of mud and thatched roof huts were washed away as the storm sent seawater surging inland, causing extensive flooding to villages where many people survive as subsistence farmers.
The small town of Behrampur, about 10 kilometers (7 miles) inland from where the eye of the cyclone struck, was one of the worst affected areas, with the wind shattering windows, blowing down trees and electrical poles and terrifying residents.
“We will assess after the cyclone eases … even now the cyclone is on,” said Odisha’s chief secretary JK Mohapatra. “There has been pretty severe devastation in Brahmapur town.”
In the state capital of Bhubaneshwar, billboards and traffic lights toppled across the city and trees were uprooted. The city was also left without electricity after the storm ripped down power cables, though early reports indicated the state capital escaped major damage.
By Sunday morning, winds had slowed to around 90 km (56 miles) per hour.
However, meteorologists said parts of the region would face heavy rains and winds for the next 24 hours.
“Its intensity is still strong, but after crossing the coast it has weakened considerably,” Sharat Sahu, a top official with the India Meteorological Department in Odisha, told reporters.
Cyclones typically lose much of their force when they hit land, where there is less heat-trapping moisture feeding energy into the storm.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)