A massive cyclone is hammering India’s eastern coastline with heavy rains and destructive winds, as hundreds of thousands of people living in the region moved inland and took shelter, hoping to ride out the dangerous storm.
Roads were all but empty as high waves lashed the coastline of Orissa state, which will bear the brunt of Cyclone Phailin.
Wind gusts were so strong that they could blow over grown men. Along the coast, seawater was pushing inland, swamping villages where many people survive as subsistence farmers in mud and thatch huts.
As the cyclone swept across the Bay of Bengal toward the Indian coast, satellite images showed its spinning tails covering an area larger than France.
In Behrampur, a town about seven miles inland from where the eye of the storm was expected to hit, the sky blackened quickly around the time of landfall, with heavy winds and rains pelting the empty streets.
Estimates of the storm’s power had dropped slightly, with the US Navy’s Joint Typhoon Warning Centre in Hawaii showing maximum sustained winds of about 150 miles per hour, with gusts up to 184 mph.
The storm, though, remained exceedingly strong and dangerous. By yesterday evening, some 420,000 people had been moved to higher ground or shelters in Orissa, and 100,000 more in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, said Indian home secretary Anil Goswami.
“A storm this large can’t peter out that fast,” said Ryan Maue, a meteorologist at Weather Bell, a private US weather firm. “There’s nothing to stop it at this point.”
LS Rathore, the head of the Indian Meteorological Department, predicted a storm surge of 3-3.5 meters (10-11.5 feet), but Mr Maue said that even in the best-case scenario there would be a surge of 7-9 meters (20-30 feet).
A storm surge – the giant wall of water that a cyclone blasts ashore – is the big killer in such storms.
Phailin already has been large and powerful for nearly 36 hours, he said, and those winds have built up a tremendous amount of surge.
A few hours before the storm was to hit, about 200 villagers were jammed into a two-room schoolhouse in the village of Subalaya, about 20 miles from the coast, where local emergency officials were distributing food and water.
The roads were almost completely empty of traffic but two trucks pulled up to the school with more evacuees. Children shivered in the rain as they stepped down from the vehicles, following women carrying bags jammed with possessions.
Many of the people had fled low-lying villages for the shelter of the concrete school. But some had also left behind relatives who feared the storm could wipe out lifetimes of work.
“My son had to stay back with his wife because of the cattle and belongings,” said 70-year-old Kaushalya Jena, weeping in fear inside the makeshift shelter. “I don’t know if they are safe.”
In Bhubaneshwar, the Orissa state capital, 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 leave their homes if they are ordered.
“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.