India's east coast braces for massive cyclone
Indian residents of cyclone warned areas travel to a safer place, in Chhatrapur of Berhampur district on October 11, 2013
High waves were already pounding rain-drenched beaches and trees were bent double by strong winds ahead of the arrival of Cyclone Phailin, which was expected to make landfall Saturday evening accompanied by a storm surge of up to three metres (10 feet).
The storm was set to hit in the same coastal area as a devastating cyclone which struck in 1999, killing thousands of people.
Authorities evacuated tens of thousands of people Friday from flimsy thatched shacks along the coasts of the states of Orissa and neighbouring Andhra Pradesh to relief camps.
Tens of thousands more were being shifted from the path of Cyclone Phailin, the Thai word for sapphire.
"The first priority will be to save people's lives, ensure food and electricity," Orissa's Disaster Management Minister Surya Narayan Patra said.
The Orissa government said it was setting a "zero casualty target" in the densely populated state of close to 40 million people and was seeking "100 percent" evacuation of people in areas likely to be hit by the storm.
The storm was bearing down on India's east coast just as Hindus were celebrating one of the most important religious festivals of the year.
"I thought we would be celebrating but now I am just worried about the storm," a teenager told India's NDTV.
Satellite photos showed an intimidating cloud mass barrelling across the Bay of Bengal as forecasters said the danger zone was about 150 kilometres (90 miles) wide and would hit coastal Orissa and Andhra Pradesh state.
In Orissa's capital Bhubaneswar, where trees were swaying in strong winds, panic buying saw many shops run low on food with memories still strong of the deadly cyclone which hit the same region 14 years ago.
"It's touch-and-go whether it turns into a supercyclone," the most powerful type of storm, India Meteorological Department director general Laxman Singh Rathore told a news conference late Friday.
"The storm has high damage potential, considering the windspeed," he added, calling the weather mass a "category 6" storm. He said the storm would be classed as a "supercyclone" if it crossed the 6.5 level.
The military has been called out to help relief efforts and India's air force said two emergency teams had been dispatched to Bhubaneswar while transport planes and helicopters were on standby.
The deadly 1999 cyclone which knocked out power lines, railway links and devastated forest areas, packed far higher speeds of up to 300 kilometres an hour and led to a storm surge of six metres.
A government report on the disaster published in 2009 put the death toll at 8,243, and 445,000 livestock perished.
Authorities were better prepared for this cyclone than the one in 1999, said Rathore, who said the weather office had been able to track the storm better.
"We have been given three very good days to warn people," Rathore said, noting that in 1999 authorities had only one day to make cyclone preparations.
The better preparedness "will definitely have a (positive) impact on property and life", Rathore said.
He said the cyclone was "voluminous" but dismissed media reports that it was the size of the country.
Some of the deadliest cyclones form in the Bay of Bengal around this time of year at the end of the steamy monsoon season, when sea temperatures are at their warmest.
A cyclone that struck Bangladesh in 1970 killed hundreds of thousands of people.
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