Cyclone pummels India’s eastern coast

MUMBAI, India — At least 17 people were killed and vast swaths of rice crops damaged as Cyclone Phailin, the most powerful tropical storm to hit India’s eastern coast since 1999, made landfall with heavy rain and winds packing up to 130 miles) an hour.

Pradipta Kumar Mohapatra, chief of relief operations, updated the death toll in a phone call from Odisha state, the region lashed by the storm. Phailin, Thai for “sapphire,” struck the state Saturday near Gopalpur about 600 kilometers (372 miles) southwest of Kolkata, and will weaken gradually into a “deep depression” by late Sunday, the India Meteorological Department said. Odisha leader Naveen Patnaik called recovery from the storm a “challenge.”

The state administration, rescue teams and volunteers have evacuated as many as 1 million people from their homes in low-lying coastal areas, Surya Narayan Patro, Odisha’s minister for revenue and disaster management, said Sunday. Food relief is being provided to people who have taken shelter in public schools and buildings, he said.

“The cyclone has damaged a lot,” Patro said in a phone interview. “A challenge still remains to restore power, open roads and bring back normalcy. In many parts of the state, there is no electricity.”

Television images showed power and telephone-line poles knocked out by the storm, and billboards and roofs ripped off shops and houses. Roads were flooded and trees were uprooted by the raging winds. A cargo ship, MV Bingo, is believed to have sunk in the rough seas caused by Phailin with its crew last sighted on a lifeboat Saturday, the Press Trust of India (PTI) reported.

Phailin is the strongest storm to hit India since a cyclone with maximum wind speeds of 160 miles per hour lashed Odisha in 1999, killing about 9,000 people, damaging 2 million houses and destroying crops spread over4,077,238 acres.

Twenty-six of the world’s 35 deadliest tropical cyclones, the storms that include hurricanes and typhoons, have occurred in the Bay of Bengal, according to Jeff Masters, founder of Weather Underground in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Changes in infrastructure, weather forecasting and emergency services will probably mean the death toll from Phailin won’t be as high as it was 14 years ago, Masters said Saturday. The 1999 cyclone came about two weeks after another major storm hit the area, exacerbating flooding, he said.

The National Disaster Management Authority dispatched a 1,500-strong rescue force to Odisha and Andhra Pradesh states, while the Indian Air Force said it sent two IL-76 airlift teams and was committing two C-130J Super Hercules planes. The government put the military on standby, Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde said..

“This could well be the biggest evacuation for a cyclone in India,” Shashidhar Reddy, vice chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority, said in an interview. The heavy rains are likely to cause “extensive damage” to the rice crops in the region, he said.

Odisha’s state may lose 1 million tons of rice output due to the cyclone and heavy downpour, according to Trilochan Mohapatra, director of the state-run Central Rice Research Institute in Cuttack, Odisha.

“About 500,000 to 600,000 hectares of land with rice crops have been affected in the state,” he said in a phone interview Sunday, adding that winter-sown crop may also be affected because of sea-water inundation following the cyclone.

India is the world’s largest rice exporter. About 10 percent is produced in Odisha, where most of the crop is maturing or ready for harvest and the storm might result in a loss of 2 percent of India’s rice, David Streit, a senior forecaster for Commodity Weather Group LLC in Bethesda, Md. said.

There’s “not much damage to the rice crops in Andhra Pradesh as of now,” Mohapatra said.

Airlines changed flight paths on the route between Mumbai and Bangkok, and between Bangkok and the Middle East, the Business Standard reported Saturday, citing an air traffic controller it didn’t identify.

India’s railways also canceled or diverted some trains in the region, the Times Now television network reported.

Traffic on the state’s highways toward the high-risk areas has been restricted by the government, according to PTI.

“The state has been successful in saving precious lives,” Patnaik, Odisha’s chief minister, said in televised comments Sunday. “The government will do all it can to rehabilitate those hit.”

Rainfall at most places with “heavy to very heavy falls” in some regions would occur over Odisha during the next 12 hours and decrease thereafter, the weather department said in its latest update.

“The worst is over,” Mohapatra, Odisha’s chief of relief operations, said by phone Sunday. “Efforts are on to clear roads and restore power. The cyclone has affected about 8 million people in 15 districts.”

— With assistance from Rajesh Kumar Singh, Andrew MacAskill, Karthikeyan Sundaram and Pratik Parija in New Delhi, Abhishek Shanker in Mumbai, Daniel Ten Kate in Bangkok, Jeff Wilson in Chicago, Marvin G. Perez in New York and Brian K. Sullivan in Boston.

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