Monster storm Phailin, the most powerful cyclone in the Bay of Bengal since 1999, ripped into coastal Odisha and Andhra Pradesh late on Saturday, uprooting trees and knocking over homes in an orgy of destruction expected to last well into the night.
At least five people were killed even before Phailin landed, crushed by falling trees and collapsed houses, and the air force and coast guard were poised for a terrifying mission to try and rescue 18 fishermen missing at sea.
Large parts of the region plunged into darkness as the authorities cut off power supplies as a precaution, and several districts were buffeted by torrential rain and winds with speeds of over 200 km per hour.
The first assessment of the havoc with lives and property will emerge on Sunday, a home ministry official said. “Till then, we can only keep our fingers crossed,” he said.
The cyclone made landfall in Gopalpur on the Odisha coast around 9pm, knocking down a cellphone tower in neighbouring Andhra on its way in. Waves were expected to rise up to 12 feet.
“This is very scary. The wind is screaming since evening. I went out and bought dry food worth `1,000 yesterday and am now holed up inside an inspection bungalow,” said a police official in Gopalpur, a picturesque port town 170 km south of Bhubaneswar.
Over half a million people were evacuated before Phailin landed but poignantly, on the most auspicious day of Durga Puja, some refused to move, entrusting their lives to the goddess.
“There were many people who refused to be moved to shelter zones, reluctant to leave behind their Durga puja pandals and cattle… they said their prayers could reduce the severity of the storm,” KM Singh, member of the National Disaster Management Authority, told HT.
Though the intensity of the storm was forecast to ebb in somewhat by 3am, it would still be dangerous for at least six hours after that, and the Met department predicted that heavy rain could spread as far afield as eastern Uttar Pradesh. Up to 12 million people are expected to be affected in one way or the other by Phailin, which means sapphire in Thai.
The storm brought back traumatic memories of a similar one in 1999, which killed at least 10,000. But disaster preparations have improved substantially since then. The air force pressed into operation its biggest transport plane, the gigantic C-17, to airlift ambulances and relief material, while helicopters and navy warships were close at hand.
The authorities were forced to release water from the Hirakud and Damodar Valley dams to prevent a breach as the rain pelted down, potentially posing a flooding threat.
Once the extent of damage becomes clear, relief and rehabilitation efforts will get into full swing.
The evacuated are crammed into schools and temples, and preventing waterborne diseases will be a major focus. Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik, who
faces the state electorate next year, has told his officials to “ensure zero casualty” and is personally reviewing some operations.
With reporting by Ipsit Mohapatra, Zia Haq and Chetan Chauhan