BEHRAMPUR, India – Mass evacuations spared India the widespread deaths many had feared from a powerful cyclone that roared ashore over the weekend, officials said Sunday, as the country sorted through the wreckage of flooded towns, tangled power lines and tens of thousands of destroyed thatch homes.
Cyclone Phailin, the strongest storm to hit India in more than a decade, destroyed hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of crops, but more than 20 hours after it made landfall in Orissa state on the country's east coast, authorities said they knew of only 17 fatalities.
The final death toll is expected to climb further as officials reach areas of the cyclone-battered coast that remain isolated by downed communication links and blocked roads, but the evacuation of nearly 1 million people appeared to have saved many lives.
"Damage to property is extensive," said Amitabh Thakur, the top police officer in the Orissa district worst-hit by the cyclone. "But few lives have been lost," he said, crediting the mass evacuations.
On the highway to the seaside city of Gopalpur, where the storm made landfall early Saturday night, two tractor-trailers with shattered windshields were lying on their sides, while a hotel nearby was in tatters, with tables and chairs strewn about.
"We were terrified," A-1 Hotel owner Mihar Ranjan said of himself and 14 other people who had been huddling inside when the wind ripped the tin roof off the building.
On Sunday, Gopalpur's power lines sagged nearly to the ground and a strong surf churned off the coast. But some shops were opened, doing brisk business selling bottled drinks and snacks, and locals expressed relief that the damage wasn't worse.
A mermaid statue remained standing on Gopalpur's boardwalk, where most decorative street lamps still stood along with most of the city's buildings.
"Everyone feels very lucky," said Prabhati Das, a 40-year-old woman who came from the town of Behrampur, about 7 miles inland, to see the aftermath at the coast.
A cargo ship carrying iron ore, the MV Bingo, sank Saturday as the cyclone barreled through the Bay of Bengal, and its crew of 18 – including 17 Chinese and one Indonesian – went missing for a day, coast guard officials said. They were being rescued Sunday evening after their lifeboat was found about 115 miles off the Indian coast, coast guard Commandant Sharad Matri said.
Phailin weakened significantly after making landfall as a Category 4 storm, with sustained winds of up to 131 miles per hour, according to Indian meteorologists. Those numbers were slightly lower than the last advisory issued by the U.S. Navy's Hawaii-based Joint Typhoon Warning Center, which reported maximum sustained winds of about 138 mph and gusts up to 167 mph four hours before the storm hit land.
Midday on Sunday, some areas reported little more than breezy drizzles, with winds in some areas blowing at 100 mph. Meteorologists warned that Orissa and other states in the storm's path would face heavy rains, strong winds and rough seas for several more hours.
"Its intensity is still strong, but after crossing the coast it has weakened considerably," Sharat Sahu, a top official with the Indian Meteorological Dept. in Orissa, told reporters.
Indian officials spoke dismissively of American forecasters who earlier had warned of a record-breaking cyclone that would drive a massive wall of water – perhaps as large as 30 feet high – into the coastline.
"They have been issuing warnings, and we have been contradicting them," said L.S. Rathore, director-general of the Indian Meteorological Department. "That is all that I want to say."
"As a scientist, we have our own opinion and we stuck to that. We told them that is what is required as a national weather service – to keep people informed with the reality without being influenced by over-warning," he said at a news conference in New Delhi, the capital.
Predicting how massive storms will develop is difficult in the Bay of Bengal, where there are no tidal gauges, ocean buoys or aircraft flying into storms to measure winds directly. Instead, both U.S. and Indian meteorologists rely on satellite imagery to assess a storm's strength and path.
The Indian government had faced immense public criticism after its slow response to a series of deadly floods and mudslides in June in the northern state of Uttarakhand, where more than 6,000 people were killed.
But officials took few chances with Phailin, especially given memories of a 1999 Orissa cyclone that devastated the coastline and left at least 10,000 people dead.
Nearly 1 million people were evacuated from the coast ahead of Phailin, including more than 870,000 in Orissa and more than 100,000 in neighboring Andhra Pradesh.
Still, some either missed the evacuation or chose to ride out the storm near the coast, for fear of losing their homes and livestock to possible looting.
Truck driver M.D. Makasad Ali had set out Saturday night from the coast for Behrampur, but was forced by strong winds to pull over and shelter in his cab.
"At around midnight, the wind shook the truck and it fell over," the 25-year-old said. He managed to crawl out of a broken window and run for cover at a nearby hotel.
Carpenter Pitambar Moharanat, 65, spent the night terrified in his employer's seaside building in Gopalpur, where for six hours he listened to screaming winds shake the bolted wooden shutters until the winds eased at around 3 a.m.
"I am thanking God for sparing us," he said.
For days before the storm hit, officials had been stockpiling emergency food supplies and setting up hundreds of shelters. The Indian military put some forces on alert, with trucks, planes and helicopters at the ready for relief operations.
Electric utility authorities in Orissa switched off the power in 12 districts after scores of electric pylons toppled from the torrential rain and high winds.
The storm wreaked havoc in Behrampur, with the wind shattering windows, blowing down trees and electrical poles, and terrifying residents. But only three people died in the town, a security official said.
"The trees and the buildings could not be saved, but the people have been evacuated, so the human toll was contained so far," said Naresh Sharma, a commander with the Indian Central Reserve Police Force.
For the people living along the coast, many of whom live as subsistence farmers in mud-and-thatch huts, the economic toll will be immense.
Heavy rains and surging seawater destroyed more than 1.23 million acres of crops worth an estimated $395 million, according to Orissa's disaster minister, S.N. Patro.
British Prime Minister David Cameron described the damage as "shocking," and said in a Twitter message that Britain would do "what it can to help."
U.S. forecasters had repeatedly warned that Phailin would be immense, and as the cyclone approached 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 27 of the 35 deadliest storms in recorded history – including the 1999 cyclone – have come through the Bay of Bengal and landed in either India or Bangladesh.
Associated Press writers Katy Daigle in New Delhi, Manik Banerjee in Kolkata, India, and Cassandra Vinograd in London contributed to this report.