A MASSIVE cyclone was last night hammering India’s eastern coast with heavy rains and destructive winds, as hundreds of thousands of people fled inland seeking shelter, hoping to ride out the storm.
Roads were all but empty as high waves lashed the coastline of Orissa state, which will bear the brunt of Cyclone Phailin.
Gusts of wind were strong enough to knock an adult off their feet. Along the coast, a tidal surge saw seawater swamp villages where many people survive as subsistence farmers in mud and thatch huts.
As the cyclone swept the Bay of Bengal towards the Indian coast, satellite images showed its spinning tails covering an area larger than France.
In Behrampur, a town about seven miles inland from where the eye of the storm was expected to hit, the sky blackened quickly around the time of landfall, with heavy winds and rains pelting the empty streets.
Estimates of the storm’s power had dropped slightly, with the US Navy’s Joint Typhoon Warning Centre in Hawaii showing maximum sustained winds of about 150 miles per hour, with gusts up to 184mph.
The storm, though, remained exceedingly strong and dangerous.
By last night, some 420,000 people had been moved to higher ground or shelters in Orissa, and 100,000 more in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, said Indian home secretary Anil Goswami.
“A storm this large can’t peter out that fast,” said Ryan Maue, a meteorologist at US weather firm Weather Bell. “There’s nothing to stop it at this point.”
LS Rathore, the head of the Indian Meteorological Department, predicted a storm surge of around 11∫ft, but Maue said that even in the best-case scenario there would be a surge of 20-30ft.
A storm surge – the giant wall of water that a cyclone blasts ashore – is the main cause of deaths in such storms.
Phailin already has been large and powerful for nearly 36 hours, Rathore said, and those winds have built up a tremendous amount of surge.
A few hours before the storm was due to hit, about 200 villagers were jammed into a two-room schoolhouse in the village of Subalaya, about 20 miles from the coast, where local emergency officials were distributing food and water.
The roads were almost empty of traffic but two trucks pulled up to the school with more evacuees. Children shivered in the rain as they stepped down from the vehicles, following women carrying bags crammed with possessions. Many of the people had fled low-lying villages for the shelter of the concrete school. But some had also 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 to be distributed at relief camps.
The state’s top official, chief minister Naveen Patnaik, appealed for people to leave their homes if they were so ordered.
“I request everyone to not panic. Please assist the government. Everyone from the village to the state headquarters have been put on alert,” he said.
Meanwhile aid agencies are gearing up to help the people of India. Children’s charity World Vision said its teams on the ground were already seeing signs of the storm. Oxfam said that in villages where it works, people have been evacuated to safe shelters.