BEHRAMPUR, India – An immense, powerful cyclone packing destructive winds hammered eastern India Sunday, forcing more than 500,000 people to evacuate and sending seawater surging inland. Reports of deaths and the extent of damage from Cyclone Phailin won’t become clear until after daybreak.
The storm, which made landfall early Saturday night near the town of Golpalpur in Orissa state, was 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.
Officials in both Orissa and Andhra Pradesh have been stockpiling emergency food supplies and setting up shelters. The Indian military has put some of its forces on alert, and has trucks, transport planes and helicopters at the ready for relief operations.
Roads were all but empty Saturday as high waves pounded the coastline of Orissa state. Seawater pushed inland, swamping villages where many people survive as subsistence farmers in mud and thatch huts.
As the cyclone swept across the Bay of Bengal toward the Indian coast Saturday, satellite images showed its spinning tails covering an area larger than France.
With some of the world’s warmest waters, the Indian Ocean is considered a cyclone hot spot, and some of the deadliest storms in recent history have come through the Bay of Bengal, including a 1999 cyclone that also hit Orissa and killed 10,000 people.
U.S. forecasters had repeatedly warned that Phailin would be immense.
“If it’s not a record, it’s really, really close,” University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy told The Associated Press. “You really don’t get storms stronger than this anywhere in the world ever.”
To compare it to killer U.S. storms, McNoldy said Phailin is nearly the size of Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,200 people in 2005 and caused devastating flooding in New Orleans, but also has the wind power of 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, which packed 265 kph (165 mph) winds at landfall in Miami.
In Behrampur, a town about 7 miles inland from where the eye of the storm hit, the sky blackened quickly around the time of landfall, with heavy winds and rains pelting the empty streets.
Window panes shook and shattered against the wind. Outside, objects could be heard smashing into walls.
“My parents have been calling me regularly ... they are worried,” said Hemant Pati, 27, who was holed up in a Behrampur hotel with 15 other people from the coastal town hit first by the storm.
The hotel manager said he would bar the doors against anyone trying to enter, saying there would be food, water and electricity from generators only for guests of the Hotel Jyoti Residency. “Nobody can come inside, and nobody can go out,” Shaik Nisaruddin said.
A few hours before it hit land, the eye of the storm collapsed, spreading the hurricane force winds out over a larger area and giving it a “bigger damage footprint,” said Jeff Masters, meteorology director at the U.S.-based private Weather Underground.
“It’s probably a bad thing it was doing this when it made landfall. Much of the housing in India is unable to withstand even a much weaker hurricane,” Masters said.
He also said coasts would not be alone in suffering heavy damage. “This is a remarkably strong storm. It’s going to carry hurricane-force winds inland for about 12 hours, which is quite unusual,” Masters said.
Hurricanes typically lose much of their force when they hit land, where there is less heat-trapping moisture feeding energy into the storm.
By Friday evening, some 420,000 people had been moved to higher ground or shelters in Orissa, and 100,000 more in neighboring Andhra Pradesh, said Indian Home Secretary Anil Goswami.
L.S. Rathore, the head of the Indian Meteorological Department, predicted a storm surge of 10 to 11.5 feet, but several U.S. experts had predicted a much higher wall of water would blast ashore. Meteorologist Ryan Maue of the private U.S. weather firm Weather Bell said that, even in the best-case scenario, there would be a surge of 20 to 30 feet.
A storm surge is the big killer in such storms, though heavy rains are likely to compound the destruction. The Indian government said some 12 million people would be affected by the storm, including millions living far from the coast.
The 1999 cyclone – similar in strength to Phailin but covering a smaller area – threw out a 19-foot storm surge.
Several hours before the storm hit, about 200 villagers were jammed into a two-room, concrete schoolhouse in the village of Subalaya, about 20 miles from the coast, while local emergency officials distributed food and water. The roads were almost empty, except for two trucks bringing more evacuees to the school. Children shivered in the rain as they stepped down from the vehicles, following women carrying bags jammed with possessions.
Many had fled low-lying villages for the shelter, but some left behind relatives who feared the storm could wipe out lifetimes of work.
“My son had to stay back with his wife because of the cattle and belongings,” said 70-year-old Kaushalya Jena, weeping in fear inside the makeshift shelter. “I don’t know if they are safe.”
In Bhubaneshwar, the Orissa state capital, government workers and volunteers were putting together hundreds of thousands of food packages for relief camps.
The state’s top official, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, appealed for calm Saturday.
“I request everyone to not panic. Please assist the government. Everyone from the village to the state headquarters have been put on alert,” he told reporters.
Associated Press writers Kay Johnson in Bhubaneshwar, Katy Daigle in New Delhi and Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this report.