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For cyclone victims in India, a bitter return home

A mass evacuation kept the death toll low in India’s fiercest cyclone in 14 years, but property damage has been extensive.

Adnan Abidi /Reuters

A mass evacuation kept the death toll low in India’s fiercest cyclone in 14 years, but property damage has been extensive.

PODAMPETTA, India — Agya Amma’s house in this seaside village was flattened by the cyclone that roared in from the Bay of Bengal with torrential rains and winds topping 131 miles per hour. But the fact that she was still here Monday, surveying the ruins, was proof that this was a different kind of disaster for India.

Unlike past storms that have lashed India’s eastern coast, Cyclone Phailin did not extract a heavy human toll, thanks to a massive and improbable evacuation effort that moved nearly 1 million residents of one of India’s poorest regions out of the storm’s path and into government shelters.

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By Monday, only 25 people had been reported killed, even though tens of thousands of homes were destroyed. The evacuation was earning rare praise for a country known for high death tolls in large-scale disasters.

In 1999, a cyclone that struck the same coast killed about 10,000 people, while more than 6,000 were killed in June by flooding and mudslides in another Indian state, Uttarakhand.

‘‘If we had stayed here, everyone in the village would be dead,’’ said Amma, a 55-year-old fisherwoman.

Despite the comparatively low number of deaths, Phailin has still dealt its share of misery. Hundreds of thousands of coastal residents found themselves huddling in shelters, their homes flattened and crops destroyed by the most powerful storm to hit India in more than a decade.

At least four days before the cyclone hit, police in the coastal states of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh began warning residents of the coming storm and urging them to go to shelters set up in schools and other concrete buildings.

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By Friday, the day before the cyclone hit land, hundreds of thousands of people had moved inland. Amma and others from her tiny village of Podampetta walked a mile to the nearest shelter and spent two nights waiting out the storm.

On Monday, residents ventured out to see the destruction, and many learned they had lost everything.

‘‘There is nothing to eat, no place for me to stay,’’ said Buchi Amma, 50, another Podampetta villager not related to Agya Amma. She said she had no idea how she and her husband would be able to buy food.

For the tens of thousands made homeless, authorities were distributing tarpaulins so people could build makeshift shelters, state police official M.N. Rao said.

The death toll of 25 was expected to rise as officials reach isolated areas along the coast, and parts of Orissa were still facing massive flooding after heavy rains brought by the cyclone caused rivers to overflow.

Hundreds of thousands of people were marooned Monday in the district of Balasore, where the situation ‘‘is critical,’’ said P.K. Mohapatra, the state’s head of relief operations. Authorities were air-dropping packages of food in the area.

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