India evacuated half a million people as massive Cyclone Phailin closed in on the impoverished east coast yesterday, with winds already uprooting trees and tearing into flimsy homes.
The storm packed gusts of up to 240kph as it churned over the Bay of Bengal, making it potentially the most powerful cyclone to hit the area since 1999, when more than 8,000 died, the Indian weather office said.
“The very severe cyclonic storm Phailin is moving menacingly towards the coast,” special relief commissioner for the state of Orissa, Pradipta Mohapatra said.
Authorities said they expected a 3m storm surge when the eye of the cyclone strikes after nightfall, with torrential rain also threatening floods in low-lying areas.
“I’ve got faint memories of the 1999 super cyclone,” 23-year-old student engineer Apurva Abhijeeta said from the coastal town of Puri, 70km from state capital Bhubaneswar.
Heavy waves pounded the coast as terrified people made their way to solid buildings, cramming into packed rickshaws and buses as they traveled. Relief efforts were under way, with free food being served in shelters.
Food stockpiling began earlier in the week as Phailin gathered strength dramatically, with many shops stripped bare before they closed yesterday afternoon.
In Visakhapatnam, further south on the coast of neighboring Andhra Pradesh state, fishermen frantically sought to secure their boats while others admired the rough surf.
Officials put the number of people who have been evacuated from the coastal areas of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh at about half a million.
“Approximately half a million people have been evacuated so far, including 1 lakh [100,000] in Andhra Pradesh,” National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) spokeswoman Tripti Parule said.
Officials in the neighboring state of West Bengal said hotels along the coast had been told to evacuate while Krishna Ram Pisda, the relief commissioner in Chhattisgarh state, said authorities would empty some of their dams into rivers to avert possible flooding.
Parule said the storm was expected to make landfall at about 8pm yesterday.
The agency’s vice chairman, Marri Shashidhar Reddy, told a news conference it was one of the biggest evacuations in India’s history, and had been aided by improved early warning systems.
“We will be on a war footing,” he said in New Delhi.
In the seaside town of Gopalpur, which is expected to be one of the worst affected areas, women and children were the first to pack into shelters, schools and public buildings, where they lay on mats.
The Indian Red Cross Society also had disaster response teams ready while the air force, fresh from helping evacuate thousands from floods in the Himalayas in June, flew in food and medical supplies to Bhubaneswar.
Sandeep Rai Rathore, inspector general of the army’s National Disaster Response Force, said 1,200 of the unit’s troops had been sent to Orissa and a further 500 to Andhra Pradesh.
While the storm is still technically one notch below the most powerful category of “super cyclone,” the India Meteorological Department sounded its highest “red alert” yesterday morning.
Some foreign forecasters believe Phailin, which means “Sapphire” in Thai, is more intense than Indian experts are predicting.