800,000 flee massive storm striking east coast of India

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NEW DELHI -- A massive cyclone came ashore along the eastern coast of India on Saturday night, flooding homes throughout the region and leading to the evacuations of more than 800,000 people, one of the largest such evacuations in India's history.

The storm's maximum sustained winds were about 124 mph with gusts reaching 150 mph, according to Indian officials. At least five people were killed in the coastal city of Gopalpur because of heavy rain and high winds before the storm made landfall, officials said. The storm was expected to drop up to 10 inches of rain over the next two days in some areas.

The Indian predictions before the storm made landfall had been less alarming than those from meteorological authorities in the United States. Late Friday, the U.S. Navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Center said the storm, then barreling across the Bay of Bengal, had maximum sustained winds of 161 mph, with gusts reaching 196 mph -- making it similar to a Category 5 hurricane, the most severe.

But once the storm arrived on land, its intensity was more modest, and Indian officials defended their more measured forecast as having been more accurate.

"We are not trying to downplay the intensity of the cyclone," M. Shashidhar Reddy, vice chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority, said at a news conference Saturday. "In fact, U.S. authorities are overplaying it."

On Saturday, the Joint Typhoon Warning Center, in Hawaii, reduced its estimates, saying they showed maximum sustained winds of about 138 mph and gusts of up to 167 mph.

L.S. Rathore, director general of the India Meteorological Department, termed the storm, named Cyclone Phailin, a "very serious cyclonic storm." By today, Mr. Reddy said, the storm is likely to be downgraded to a "serious cyclonic storm."

Still, the true scope of natural disasters in India is often not known for days, given its large population and fairly weak central government.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a statement Saturday that he had been briefed on preparations for the storm and had directed that the central government extend all needed assistance to state officials.

In the Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh state, many mud homes and farms were destroyed, and uprooted trees blocked roads, according to officials there. About 30,000 people were evacuated from coastal villages in Andhra Pradesh.

K. Baliah, a district official involved in rescue efforts, said coastal residents were reluctant to leave until they saw sea levels rise.

"At first they refused to leave their properties," he said. Then, "when the water started to enter their communities around 2 p.m., the people decided themselves that they must leave."

The surge accompanying the storm is expected to reach nearly 10 feet, weather officials said, which would cause heavy flooding across Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, another coastal state.

Television footage showed large waves battering the shore, wind-wrecked palm trees and communities blacked out by power cuts as hundreds of people lined the shore looking out to sea in the direction of the storm.

In many communities, Muslims and Hindus crowded mosques and temples to pray that Phailin would not match the damage of a storm in 1999 in Odisha, then known as Orissa, that killed some 10,000 people over a 30-hour period after winds reached 210 miles per hour.

Phailin was expected to head inland and dissipate within about 12 hours, however, unlike its counterpart 14 years ago that hugged the coast, allowing it to gather continued strength from the sea and cause widespread damage.

Hundreds of people lined up at gasoline stations, grocery stores and automated teller machines in Bhubaneshwar, the state capital of Odisha, as the storm approached, trying to secure emergency supplies. "The state has been in panic mode," Sahashranshu Mohapatra, a local television researcher, said by telephone.

A.K. Antony, India's defense minister, said service members from the country's army, air force and navy had been deployed to help in rescue and relief operations.

He said the air force had deployed C-130 aircraft, recently purchased from the United States, to help in the efforts, and the navy had multiple diving teams with inflatable rafts deployed at important locations. Military helicopters are also available for rescues, he said.


The Los Angeles times contributed. First Published October 12, 2013 8:00 PM


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