NEW DELHI — The powerful cyclone that struck India’s eastern coast this weekend washed away thousands of mud homes, knocked down power lines, blocked many roads, and damaged crops and fishing boats. But reports from the region Sunday showed the success of one of the biggest and most rapid evacuations in India’s history.
Authorities were able to move about 800,000 people to safety in a matter of days, demonstrating how much India has transformed in recent years.
The storm’s maximum sustained winds, which were approximately 125 miles per hour when the storm made landfall about 9 p.m. Saturday, dropped to about 50 miles per hour by midafternoon Sunday.
There were scattered reports of deaths that together climbed past 20 by Sunday, including five in the coastal city of Gopalpur. The reports said most died from tree falls in the hours before the storm landed. The cyclone — named Phailin, the Thai word for sapphire — was expected to drop up to 10 inches of rain over two days in some areas.
Heavy rains and surging sea water destroyed more than 1.23 million acres of crops worth an estimated $395 million, the Associated Press reported, quoting S.N. Patro, the disaster minister of Orissa state, where most of the damage occurred.
Just 14 years ago, a cyclone in roughly the same place killed more than 10,000 people — another in more than a century of predictably deadly cyclones to roar out of the Bay of Bengal. While an accurate assessment of Phailin’s effects will probably take weeks, there were tentative signs Sunday that the death toll was likely to be relatively modest.
There are many reasons for the change, but a vastly improved communications system is probably the most important. Nearly 1 billion people routinely use mobile phones in India, up from fewer than 40 million at the turn of the century.
Even many of the poorest villages now have televisions, and India’s news media market is saturated with 24-hour news channels that have blanketed the nation’s airwaves with coverage of the storm.
Many villagers refused to leave land and livestock during the worst of the storm, according to many reports. But almost none were unaware of the coming danger. And that is a huge change.
Dr. Jibanananda Mohanty, a retired veterinary surgeon from Bhubaneshwar in Odisha, said by telephone Sunday that he had spent a harrowing night listening to howling winds and crashing trees outside and his home remained without electricity and water.
But he had days to store enough water, milk, vegetables, and other supplies to carry him through.
India’s state and central governments spent days preparing for the worst. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a statement Saturday that he had been briefed on preparations for the storm and had directed the central government to extend all needed assistance to state officials.
Service members from the country’s army, air force, and navy were deployed to help in rescue and relief operations, said A.K. Antony, India’s defense minister.
The air force deployed C-130 aircraft, recently bought from the United States, to help in the efforts, and the navy had diving teams with inflatable rafts deployed at important locations, Antony said.
Visakhapatnam, which was near the center of the storm, experienced little damage apart from a collapsed sea wall in the fishing colony.
By 9 a.m., the sun was shining, businesses had opened at their usual times, and traffic had resumed its usual chaos. People emerged from their homes on Sunday with a sense of relief and, in some case, an I-knew-it-all-along attitude.
Tousis Ahmed, 30, who is employed in India’s emerging technology industry, stayed out late Saturday and even went to the beach, which was cordoned off, to check on the ocean.
“The waves were calm, so I went home and had a sound sleep,” Ahmed said.