Killer Indian cyclone wreaks havoc
(AFP) Cyclone Phailin left a trail of destruction along India's east coast Sunday and up to seven people dead after the biggest evacuation in the country's history helped minimise casualties.
As emergency teams began assessing damage from the country's biggest cyclone in 14 years, a massive relief effort went into full swing to distribute food to an estimated one million evacuees, clear roads and help the injured.
Most of the local population spent the night huddled in shelters and public buildings as deafening winds flattened flimsy homes, uprooted trees and sent glass and asbestos strips flying through the air.
The worst affected area around the town of Gopalpur, where the eye of Phailin packing winds of 200 kilometres an hour came ashore, remained cut off with emergency services rushing to reach there.
Raj Kishor Muduli, a delivery driver who lives just outside state capital Bhubaneswar, said the whole of his village had spent the night hunkering down in a communal shelter.
"We were all afraid, the whole village was afraid, we didn't know how strong the winds would be," the 43-year-old told AFP in the morning when the winds had died down and heavy overnight rainfall had ceased.
"Everyone was awake the whole night to see what the size of storm would be and to be on guard."
AFP journalists in the cyclone zone said electricity was down in large parts of Orissa and neighbouring Andhra Pradesh while queues formed outside petrol stations with fuel rationed to five litres per vehicle.
High-sided trucks lying on their sides were witness to the strength of the winds on the main highway south of Gopalpur which was littered with uprooted trees and other debris.
"Our teams have fanned out on the ground, they are running searches, trying to check if there have been any casualties, check the extent of the damage," Sandeep Rai Rathore, inspector general of the army's National Disaster Response Force, told AFP.
More than 8,000 people were killed in 1999 when a cyclone hit the same region, devastating crops and livestock from which the region took years to recover.
This time round, a massive evacuation operation which officials said was the biggest in Indian history appeared to have succeeded in minimising casualties.
"We were preparing for a super cyclone, but Phailin did not turn into a super cyclone," spokeswoman for the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), Tripti Parule, told AFP.
"The last biggest evacuation in India's recorded history was in Andhra Pradesh in 1990 (when another cyclone struck) -- and this is now much bigger."
The state of Orissa's top rescue official said 860,000 people moved before the cyclone made landfall on Saturday evening, while at least another 100,000 were evacuated further south in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Residents were also evacuated from coastal regions of West Bengal state.
The government had said on Saturday evening that some 550,000 people had been evacuated but efforts to persuade people to flee to safer areas continued until shortly before Phailin made landfall at around 9:00 pm.
Weakening wind speeds
The NDMA's vice chairman Marri Shashidhar Reddy said the cyclone was gradually weakening as it moved in land but winds were still gusting at speeds of up to 120 kilometres an hour.
"Of course, there will be widespread rain all over Orissa and parts of Andhra Pradesh but it may be to the extent of 10-15 centimetres (of rain), slightly lower than what was expected," said Reddy.
Orissa state relief commissioner Pradipta Kumar Mohapatra told AFP three people had been confirmed dead, while other estimates put the toll at seven.
Local member of parliament for Orissa Jay Panda told local television that seven people had been killed.
"Casualties figures will change as information comes in from remote parts there are quite a few places which are cut off from communications," he told NDTV television.
The number of dead appeared to be "significantly lower than what it could have been" because of the mobilisation of emergency efforts before the storm stuck, he said.
Initial reports suggested Phailin had been less destructive than a more powerful storm in 1999 which hit the same coastal area -- a region populated by fishermen and small-scale farmers who live in flimsy huts with thatched roofs or shanties.
The Orissa government had set itself a "zero casualty target" in the state of close to 40 million people.
Some of the deadliest storms in history have formed in the Bay of Bengal, including one in 1970 that killed hundreds of thousands of people in modern-day Bangladesh.