Thousands Flee As Cyclone Heads To India

Tens of thousands of coastal villagers have been ordered by officials to evacuate their homes as a massive cyclone that filled nearly the entire Bay of Bengal gathered strength and headed towards India’s eastern seaboard.

Officials have cancelled holy day celebrations in coastal Odisha and Andhra Pradesh states, with forecasters saying Cyclone Phailin, currently sweeping through the Bay of Bengal, will hit the region on Saturday evening.

The Indian Meteorological Department warned that Phailin was a “very severe cyclonic storm” that was expected to hit with maximum sustained winds of 210-220 kilometers per hour.

However, the US Navy’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Hawaii forecast maximum sustained winds of 269 kilometers per hour with gusts up to 315 kilometers per hour.

Fishermen out at sea along north Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal coast were advised to return to coast.

The impact of the weather system was already being felt, with heavy rains and gale-force winds on Friday in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh.

The Indian Meteorological Department gave warning of extensive damage to agricultural crops, homes and power and communication systems.

The army has also been put on standby in both Odisha and Andhra Pradesh for emergency and relief operations, the NDTV news network reported.

Helicopters and food packages were ready to be dispatched in areas expected to be worst hit by the storm, which was one notch below the most powerful category.

The Bay of Bengal has been the scene of the some of the deadliest storms in recent history.

State officials feared the wind speed could touch levels higher than that of a deadly super-cyclone that hit Odisha in 1999, killing nearly 15,000 people.

“We are fighting against nature. We are better prepared this time, we learnt a lot from 1999,” Surya Narayan Patra, Odisha’s disaster management minister, told the NDTV news channel.

Using trucks and buses, authorities evacuated 40,000 people from 40 villages to government-run shelters, schools and buildings in five districts of Orissa state, said Patra.

Patra said officials plan to take another 100,000 people to safer areas before the cyclone hits.

“No one will be allowed to stay in mud and thatched houses in the coastal areas,” he said.

The government also began evacuating 64,000 people from the low-lying areas of three vulnerable districts in neighboring Andhra Pradesh state, said state Revenue Minister N. Raghuveera Reddy.

India and Bangladesh are hit regularly by cyclones that develop in the Bay of Bengal between April and November, causing deaths and widespread damage to property.

Last January, Cyclone Thane struck the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, killing 42 people.