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800,000 in India flee huge cyclone

Flooding strikes villages along eastern coastline

Raging winds, heavy rains, and flooding from Cyclone Phailin battered Orissa, India, Saturday.

EPA

Raging winds, heavy rains, and flooding from Cyclone Phailin battered Orissa, India, Saturday.

NEW DELHI — A massive cyclone hit along the eastern coast of India about 9 p.m. Saturday, flooding homes throughout the region and leading authorities to move more than 800,000 people inland, one of the largest such evacuations in India’s history.

The storm’s maximum sustained winds were about 124 miles per hour with gusts reaching 150 miles per hour, Indian officials said.

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At least five people were killed in the coastal city of Gopalpur because of heavy rain and high winds before the storm made landfall, officials said. The storm was expected to drop up to 10 inches of rain over the next two days in some areas.

High waves lashed the coastline of Orissa state, which was likely to bear the brunt of Cyclone Phailin. There were few reports coming from Orissa after the storm made landfall, and officials said the full extent of the casualties and damage would not be known until daylight Sunday.

The government said some 12 million people would be affected by the storm, including millions living far from the coast.

Officials in both Orissa and neighboring Andhra Pradesh state stockpiled emergency food supplies and set up shelters. The Indian military put some of its forces on alert, and had trucks, transport planes, and helicopters at the ready for relief operations.

Late Friday, the US Navy’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center said the storm, then barreling across the Bay of Bengal, had maximum sustained winds of 161 miles per hour, with gusts reaching 196 miles per hour. But once the storm arrived on land, its intensity was more modest.

L.S. Rathore, director general of the India Meteorological Department, termed the storm a “very serious cyclonic storm.” By Sunday, M. Shashidhar Reddy, vice chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority, said the storm is likely to be downgraded to a “serious cyclonic storm.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a statement Saturday that he had been briefed on preparations for the storm and had directed that the central government extend all needed assistance to state officials.

In the Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh state, many mud homes and farms were destroyed, and uprooted trees blocked roads, officials said. About 30,000 people were evacuated from coastal villages.

K. Baliah, a district official involved in rescue efforts, said coastal residents were reluctant to leave until they saw sea levels rise.

“At first they refused to leave their properties,” he said. Then, “when the water started to enter their communities around 2 p.m., the people decided themselves that they must leave.”

The surge accompanying the storm is expected to reach nearly 10 feet, weather officials said, which would cause heavy flooding across Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, another coastal state.

A.K. Antony, India’s defense minister, said army, air force, and navy personnel had been deployed to help in rescue and relief operations.

He said the air force had deployed C-130 aircraft, recently purchased from the United States, to help in the efforts, and the navy had diving teams with inflatable rafts deployed at important locations. Military helicopters are also available for rescues, he said.

Pentayya Chintakayala, 33, a fisherman from a village near the port city of Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh, said the fishermen of his village had stopped fishing and moved their boats inland, but they were concerned that they could lose everything if the storm was as severe as predicted.

“What they tell us on television and what we see in the waves have nothing to do with each other,” he said. “Fishermen don’t always listen to the warnings, and 90 percent of the time that’s OK, but 10 percent of the time the warnings are true, and we lose everything because we don’t believe them. Fishermen are stubborn like that.”

Chintakayala added that it was difficult to store fishing equipment very far inland, “because the boats are heavy and there isn’t much place to store them.”

Officials in the Visakhapatnam district were able to evacuate 21,500 people to relief camps by Saturday evening, including 3,500 inhabitants of flood-prone slums in the city of Visakhapatnam. But they said that they had often resorted to force, and that 30,000 more might have to be evacuated if the worst predictions come to pass.

“Basically the people are not willing to come to the shelters, because they are worried that they will lose their belongings,” said M. Venkateswarao, the district revenue officer. “They say that nothing bad will happen and that we are unnecessarily forcing them. But even if one person dies, it will look very bad for the district administration.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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