A strong cyclone, half the size of India and one of the worst storms the country has witnessed in the last decade, tore into its eastern coastline on Saturday evening. Cyclone Phailin, packed with winds of 200–220 kph (up to 136 mph), made landfall at Gopalpur, a popular beach destination in the state of Odisha, around 9 p.m.
The dreaded storm forced more than half a million people into cyclone shelters in Odisha, as well as the state of Andhra Pradesh in southern India, accounting for the country’s largest evacuation operation in the last 23 years. India’s meteorological department predicted the storm would remain severe throughout the night and into Sunday morning.
Shashidhar Reddy, vice chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority, told reporters in New Delhi that their priority is to minimize loss of life.
Up until Saturday evening, seven people were reported dead in cyclone-related incidents, mostly due to fallen trees and debris, although the real picture of the devastation won’t emerge until Sunday when rescue operations begin. “We can effectively face the crisis if we work unitedly,” said Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister of Odisha, while asking people not to panic.
The storm was accompanied by heavy rain, which is expected to continue throughout Sunday and into Monday. Strong winds smashed windows and lashed trees in the storm-struck region, making them sway wildly. Trees and electrical poles were uprooted; roofs flew off from thatched houses. The weather department warned of damage to property, flooding and flying debris.
Television visuals showed little children shivering in the rain. The streets were dark, as power lines were snapped to mitigate the damage, and deserted as citizens took refuge in cyclone shelters or stayed indoors. “Many people refused to move, had to be convinced, and at times the police had to forcefully move them to safe places,” Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde told reporters in New Delhi on Friday.
Meanwhile, New Delhi has deployed its armed and paramilitary forces in key locations and has kept on stand-by 18 helicopters, 12 lift aircrafts and two warships for rescue and relief operations in the affected states. Five lakh tonnes of food grains, ready-to-eat food packets and water were also made ready to distribute to people in affected areas.
Although the Indian Met department had not classified Cyclone Phailin as a super-storm, some forecasters warned of similarities with Hurricane Katrina, which in 2005 ripped the U.S. Gulf coast and New Orleans, killing about 1,800 people. The last super cyclone to hit India was in 1999 in Odisha, which killed 10,000 people.