Deadly Cyclone Phailin slams into India

BEHRAMPUR, India — An immense, powerful cyclone that lashed the Indian coast, forcing 500,000 people to evacuate and causing widespread damage, weakened Sunday after making landfall.

Five people died in the rains that fell ahead of the storm, most killed by falling branches, Indian media reported, but the situation on the ground in many areas was still unclear after Cyclone Phailin slammed into the coast Saturday evening in Orissa state, where power and communications lines were down along much of the coastline.

The storm, the strongest to hit India in more than a decade, washed away tens of thousands of mud and thatched roof huts and sent seawater surging inland. It had slowed significantly overnight, but meteorologists were calling for heavy rains across the state.

“Its intensity is still strong, but after crossing the coast it has weakened considerably,” Sharat Sahu, a top official with the Indian Meteorological Dept. in Orissa, told reporters.

Storms typically lose much of their force when they hit land, where there is less heat-trapping moisture feeding energy into the storm.

In Behrampur, about 10 kilometers (7 miles) inland from where the eye of the cyclone struck, there were no reports of deaths early Sunday morning. But the storm had wrought havoc on the small town, with the wind shattering windows, blowing down trees and electrical poles and terrifying residents.

In the state capital of Bhubaneshwar, billboards and traffic lights had fallen across the city and trees were uprooted, but early reports indicated the state capital escaped major damage.

“The 1999 storm was very big, but this was not as strong at least in Bhubaneshwar,” said Upendra Malik, a city employee leading a crew working with axes and coils of heavy rope to clear roads of fallen trees and branches. “We’ve just started to assess the damage and coastal areas will have fared worse.”

With most communications down, and many roads impassable because of fallen trees, there was no news at all yet from many coastal towns and villages.

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

Electric utility authorities in Orissa had switched off the power in 12 districts in the path of the cyclone after scores of electric pylons had toppled from the torrential rain and high winds.

With some of the world’s warmest waters, the Indian Ocean is considered a cyclone hot spot, and some of the deadliest storms in recent history have come through the Bay of Bengal, including a 1999 cyclone that also hit Orissa and killed 10,000 people.

U.S. forecasters had repeatedly warned that Phailin would be immense, and as the cyclone swept across the Bay of Bengal toward the Indian coast Saturday, satellite images showed its spinning tails covering an area larger than France.

On Saturday, seawater pushed inland along the Orissa coast, swamping villages where many people survive as subsistence farmers in mud and thatch huts.

In Behrampur, the sky blackened quickly around the time of landfall, with heavy winds and rains pelting the empty streets.

Window panes shook and shattered in the wind. Outside, wind-blown objects could be heard smashing into walls.

“My parents have been calling me regularly … they are worried,” said Hemant Pati, 27, who was holed up in a Behrampur hotel.

By Saturday evening, more than 500,000 people had been moved to higher ground or shelters in Orissa, and 100,000 more in neighboring Andhra Pradesh, officials said.

L.S. Rathore, the head of the Indian Meteorological Department, predicted a storm surge of 3-3.5 meters (10-11.5 feet), but several U.S. experts had predicted that a much higher wall of water would blast ashore. Meteorologist Ryan Maue of the private U.S. weather firm Weather Bell predicted that, even in the best-case scenario, there would be a surge of 7-9 meters (20-30 feet).

The height of the surge, though, remained unclear Sunday morning.

A storm surge is the big killer in such storms, though heavy rains are likely to compound the destruction. The Indian government said some 12 million people would be affected by the storm, though that figure included millions living far from the coast.

The 1999 cyclone — similar in strength to Phailin but covering a smaller area — threw out a 5.9-meter (19-foot) storm surge.

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