x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

India braces for Cyclone Phailin, its worst storm in 15 years

India moves oil vessels out to sea, closes one of its biggest ports and deploys rescue teams to its eastern coastline to prepare for the storm.

Fishermen, such as this one on the Bay of Bengal coast at Puri, Odisha state, and thousands of villagers have evacuated from coastal areas along India's eastern seaboard. Biswaranjan Rout / AP Photo
Fishermen, such as this one on the Bay of Bengal coast at Puri, Odisha state, and thousands of villagers have evacuated from coastal areas along India's eastern seaboard. Biswaranjan Rout / AP Photo

NEW DELHI // A cyclone half the size of India was expected to hit the country’s eastern coast on Saturday, reviving memories of a similar 1999 storm that killed 15,000 people.

Skies darkened across south and east India on Friday as Cyclone Phailin threatened to touch Category 5, the most powerful storm classification. India moved oil vessels out to sea, closed one of its biggest ports and deployed rescue teams to its eastern coastline to prepare for the strongest storm in 14 years.

A Category 5 cyclone is comparable to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the south-eastern United States in 2005.

When Phailin makes landfall, somewhere along the coastline of the states of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, its surface winds are expected to reach speeds of up to 225 kph, India’s meteorological department said.

In Odisha’s capital Bhubaneswar, where trees were already bending under the strain of strong winds, many shops ran low on food as people stocked up ahead of Phailin’s arrival.

“I’m feeling scared and tense. My son is expected to arrive Sunday. Now I think he won’t make it,” Bhubaneswar resident, Manjushree Das, said.

The state’s Paradip Port Trust, the country’s biggest dry bulk cargo facility, moved all its ships to sea and shut down operations,

Sea levels were expected to surge up to 3 metres above regular tidal levels in the states’ low-lying areas. The meteorological department also predicted “large-scale disruption of power and communication lines … potential threat from flying debris, flooding of escape routes [and] extensive damage to agricultural crops”.

“The cyclone is expected to impact life and properties,” Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister of Odisha, wrote in a letter to AK Antony, the defence minister, on Thursday. “The districts likely to be affected by the impending cyclone have been asked to ensure all preparedness including evacuation of people in vulnerable areas to the cyclone shelters for their safety.”

Mr Patnaik requested that the armed forces be ready to help with disaster relief in the state.

Government employees were recalled from holidays to help brace the state for the cyclone’s landfall, and the Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force was deployed on Thursday.

“Our first concern is zero human casualties,” PK Mahapatra, Odisha’s special relief commissioner, said on Friday. The government will remove residents who live in structurally unsound housing such as mud huts.

Using lorries and buses, Odisha authorities yesterday evacuated 40,000 people from 40 villages to government-run shelters, schools and buildings in five districts. There were plans to take another 100,000 people to safer areas before the cyclone hits.

“Anyone who stays back will be forcefully evacuated,” Mr Mahapatra said.

The state banned fishing until the danger has subsided.

Following the meteorological department’s advisory, road and rail traffic were scaled back on Friday, when Phailin hovered 500 kilometres off the coast.

The Andhra Pradesh state government scrambled to ready itself for Phailin. Until late Thursday, employees of the state government had been on strike for nearly a week over the proposal to split the state into two parts.

Large parts of Andhra Pradesh suffered from power outages as 30,000 electricity workers went on strike beginning last week. The lack of power affected essential services, including hospitals and trains.

Some electricity workers returned to work on Friday to help brace for the storm.

“It’s only temporary, in view of the cyclone threat,” R Saibabu, a representative of the electricity board employees, said on Thursday. “We will, however, continue our protests in other forms.”

The Andhra Pradesh government has stockpiled essential commodities such as fuel and food, T Radha, the state’s disaster management commissioner, said.

“Once the cyclone crosses, we expect 20 villages to be cut off,” he said.

India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, further south in the Bay of Bengal, have already experienced some of Phailin’s ferocity. Between Tuesday and Thursday, Mayabunder Island received 735 millimetres of rain, and heavy winds shut down ferry service between the islands.

The 1999 cyclone that killed 15,000 people also developed in mid-October. It left 1.6 million people homeless and caused damage worth approximately US$4.5 billion (Dh16.52bn).

For each cyclone formed in the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal has four, according to National Disaster Management Authority.

ssubramanian@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Bloomberg and Agence France-Presse