Evacuations continue as cyclone nears India

2013-10-12 11:29
(Picture: AFP)

(Picture: AFP)

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Bhubaneshwar - Strong winds and heavy rains pounded India's eastern coastline on Saturday, as authorities rushed to move tens of thousands of people away from a massive, powerful cyclone expected to reach land in a few hours.

The skies were dark - almost black - at midmorning in Bhubaneshwar, the capital of Orissa state and about 100km from the coast. Roaring winds made palm trees sway wildly, and to the south, seawater was pushing inland.

About 12 hours before Cyclone Phailin's landfall, meteorologists held out hope that the storm might hit while in a temporary weakened state, but no matter what it will be large and deadly.

Ryan Maue, a meteorologist at Weather Bell, a private US weather firm, said even in the best-case scenario there will be a storm surge of 7m to 9m.

A storm surge - the giant wall of water that that a cyclone blasts ashore - is the big killer in these storms, even more than winds.

The storm already has been large and powerful for nearly 36 hours, he said, and those winds have built up tremendous amount of surge, Maue said.

Satellite images showed the cyclone filling nearly the entire Bay of Bengal, an area larger than France.

“A storm this large can't peter out that fast," Maue said. "There's nothing to stop it at this point."

Celebrations cancelled

Officials cancelled holy day celebrations and stockpiled emergency supplies in coastal Orissa and Andhra Pradesh states.

The Indian Meteorological Department warned that Phailin was a "very severe cyclonic storm" that was expected to hit with maximum sustained winds of 210km to 220kph.

However, the US Navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Centre in Hawaii forecast maximum sustained winds of 269kph with gusts up to 315kph.

Indian officials also made less dire predictions about the storm surge, saying only it would be at least 3m high.

In Bhubaneshwar, government workers and volunteers were putting together hundreds of thousands of food packages to be distributed at relief camps.

The state's top official, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, appealed for people to co-operate with officials as they order people to leave their homes.

"I request everyone to not panic. Please assist the government. Everyone from the village to the state headquarters have been put on alert," he told reporters.

In Paradip, the Orissa port city hammered in a 1999 cyclone, at least seven ships had put to sea to ride out the storm, with other boats shifted to safer parts of the harbour, officials said.

US forecasters repeatedly warned the storm would be immense.

"If it's not a record it's really, really close," University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy told AP. "You really don't get storms stronger than this anywhere in the world ever. This is the top of the barrel."

Killer storm

To compare to killer US storms, McNoldy said Phailin is near the size of 2005's Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1 200 people and caused devastating flooding in New Orleans, but Phailin also has the wind power of 1992's Hurricane Andrew, which had 265kph winds at landfall in Miami.

The storm continues on its current path without weakening, it is expected to cause large-scale power and communications outages and shut down road and rail links, officials said. There would also be extensive damage to crops.

Using trucks and buses, authorities evacuated 40 000 people from 40 villages to government-run shelters, schools and buildings in five districts of Orissa, said Surya Narayan Patra, the state revenue and disaster management minister.

Patra said officials plan to take another 100 000 people to safer areas before the cyclone hits.

"No one will be allowed to stay in mud and thatched houses in the coastal areas," he said.

The government also began evacuating 64 000 people from the low-lying areas of three vulnerable districts in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh state, said state Revenue Minister N Raghuveera Reddy.

The sea had already pushed inland as much as 40m in parts of Andhra Pradesh.

Officials have been stockpiling emergency food supplies, and setting up shelters for people expected to flee the heavy winds and rains. The Indian air force said four transport planes and 18 helicopters were being kept ready for relief operations in the region.

What makes this storm so fearsome is that there's no wind shear to weaken it and the water that is fueling it is warm and deep, McNoldy said. Those are the ingredients for a record storm.

The Bay of Bengal has been the scene of some of the deadliest storms in recent history. The 1999 Orissa cyclone, which was similar in strength to Phailin, killed 10 000 people.

Read more on:    india  |  weather

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