Wind, rain pound India as massive cyclone hits

By Shonal Ganguly

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Oct. 12 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

The 1999 cyclone — similar in strength to Phailin but covering a smaller area — threw out a 5.9-meter (19.4-foot) storm surge.

Several hours before the storm hit, about 200 villagers were jammed into a two-room, concrete schoolhouse in the village of Subalaya, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the coast, while local emergency officials distributed food and water. The roads were almost empty, except for two trucks bringing more evacuees to the school. Children shivered in the rain as they stepped down from the vehicles, following women carrying bags jammed with possessions.

Many had fled low-lying villages for the shelter, but some 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 for relief camps.

Stranded tourists who had come for Orissa's beaches and temples instead roamed the hallways of boarded-up hotels.

"It seemed strange, because it was a beautiful sunny day yesterday," said Doris Lang of Honolulu, who was with a friend in the seaside temple town of Puri when news of the cyclone's approach reached them.

The state's top official, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, appealed for calm.

"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.

Surya Narayan Patro, the state's top disaster management official, had said that "no one will be allowed to stay in mud and thatched houses in the coastal areas" when the storm hits.

By Saturday afternoon, the sea had already pushed inland as much as 40 meters (130 feet) along parts of the coastline.

Officials in both Orissa and Andhra Pradesh have been stockpiling emergency food supplies and setting up shelters. The Indian military has put some of its forces on alert, and has trucks, transport planes and helicopters at the ready for relief operations.

The storm is expected to cause large-scale power and communications outages and shut down road and rail links, officials said. It's also expected to cause extensive damage to crops.

In the port city of Paradip — which was hammered in the 1999 cyclone, also in October — at least seven ships were moved out to sea to ride out the storm, with other boats shifted to safer parts of the harbor, officials said.

U.S. forecasters had repeatedly warned that Phailin would be immense.

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

To compare it to killer U.S. storms, McNoldy said Phailin is nearly the size of Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,200 people in 2005 and caused devastating flooding in New Orleans, but also has the wind power of 1992's Hurricane Andrew, which packed 265 kph (165 mph) winds at landfall in Miami.

India experiences two cyclone seasons a year, one in May before the annual monsoon rains and another beginning in October.

"Keep in mind, India's second cyclone season is only just beginning," said Masters, the American meteorologist. "We could see another big storm in October or November."

Associated Press writers Kay Johnson in Bhubaneshwar, Katy Daigle in New Delhi and Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this report.

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