Cyclone Phailin, the most powerful storm India has faced in more than a decade, struck the port town of Gopalpur on Saturday night, packing winds at a speed of over 200 km per hour and battering vast areas of Odisha and neighbouring Andhra Pradesh.
The powerful winds snapped trees like matchsticks and swept away rooftops besides flattening paddy crop across a large swathe of farmland. In the soapy seas, waves leapt up to 3.5 metres and smashed into the coasts in giant surges. Darkness enveloped most parts of coastal Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, as authorities shut down power supplies as a precaution.
The magnitude of the damage caused by Phailin, which means sapphire in Thai and is described as a category 4 storm on a scale of 1-5 was not immediately known. But officials did not rule out human and livestock casualty despite the governments in both states setting a "zero-casualty target."
The first official assessment of the havoc will emerge on Sunday morning, said a home ministry official in New Delhi. "Till then, we can only keep our fingers crossed," he said.
At least six people died in heavy rains and 10 villages came under water earlier in the day. A group of 18 fishermen had also gone missing.
LS Rathore, director general of Indian Meteorological Department, told a late night news conference that severe cyclonic conditions will remain for the next six hours, but the impact was unlikely to be as destructive as it had been with a super cyclone that had hit Odisha in 1999.
Still, it posed a danger to a 150-km stretch of coastline in the two states. "From Gopalpur to Paradip there are gale winds."
About 6.5 lakh people were evacuated from the storm's path, in what is said to be the biggest peacetime human movement in the country in 23 years. More than 1,700 soldiers besides rescue teams from the navy were kept on standby for emergencies.
Hours before the storm, authorities in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh shut down power supplies in about a dozen districts. Riding the storm
The all-round darkness only accentuated the intensity of the storm as fear-stricken people--packed into relief centres listened to the wind howling in a terrifying cacophony, at times interspersed by cracking sound of breaking trees.
"This is very scary. The wind is screaming since evening," said a police official in Gopalpur, where the cyclone made the landfall. The picturesque port town is 170 km south of Bhubaneswar, Odisha's capital.
At a makeshift cyclone shelter in Berhampur, 15 km off Gopalpur, 70-year-old Kaushalya Jena prayed for his son’s safety. "My son had to stay back with his wife because of the cattle and belonging."
Even before the cyclone moved inland, Odisha could feel the approaching storm from early morning as heavy rains accompanied by winds lashed the state, uprooting trees and inundating low-lying areas.
A woman prays to God to save them from Phailin cyclone at a cyclone shelter at Kanamana village near Gopalpur, Odisha. PTI photo
As the winds picked up speed and the storm intensified, both landline and mobile phone services were badly affected in several districts.
As many as 180 trains scheduled to pass through the cyclone zone were cancelled, much before the storm struck. All airlines stopped flying to Bhubaneswar and Visakhapatnam, while the traffic stalled on long stretches of NH 5 that connects Kolkata with Chennai through the eastern coast.
The remnants of the storm are likely to dump "heavy to very heavy rains" across Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh in the next 24 hours. Parts of Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh were also expected to see heavy rainfall.
News of Phailin has been making headlines since it was formed in the Bay of Bengal earlier this week and churned its way across the high seas, turning into what many feared could be a repeat of the super cyclone of 1999, which killed more than 10,000 people and left behind such destruction that took years to be undone.
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 Navin Patnaik, who faces the state electorate next year, has told his officials to “ensure zero casualty” and is personally reviewing some operations.
(with inputs from Ipsit Mohapatra, Zia Haq and Chetan Chauhan)
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