BEHRAMPUR, India — An immense, powerful cyclone packing destructive winds hammered eastern India, forcing more than 500,000 people to evacuate and sending seawater surging inland. Reports of deaths and the extent of damage from Cyclone Phailin won’t become clear until after daybreak today.
The storm, which made landfall early Saturday night near the town of Golpalpur in Orissa state, was 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.
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.
Roads were all but empty Saturday as high waves pounded the coastline of Orissa state. Seawater pushed inland, swamping villages where many people survive as subsistence farmers in mud and thatch huts.
As the cyclone swept across the Bay of Bengal toward the Indian coast Saturday, satellite images showed its spinning tails covering an area larger than France.
U.S. forecasters had repeatedly warned that Phailin would be immense.
With some of the world’s warmest waters, the Indian Ocean is considered a cyclone hot spot, and some of the deadliest storms in recent history have come through the Bay of Bengal, including a 1999 cyclone that also hit Orissa and killed 10,000 people.
“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.”
In Behrampur, a town about seven miles inland from where the eye of the storm hit, the sky blackened quickly around the time of landfall, with heavy winds and rains pelting the empty streets.
Window panes shook and shattered against the wind. Outside, objects could be heard smashing into walls.
“My parents have been calling me regularly ... they are worried,” said Hemant Pati, 27, who was holed up in a Behrampur hotel with 15 other people from the coastal town hit first by the storm.
The hotel manager said he would bar the doors against anyone trying to enter, saying there would be food, water and electricity from generators only for guests of the Hotel Jyoti Residency. “Nobody can come inside, and nobody can go out,” Shaik Nisaruddin said.
A few hours before it hit land, the eye of the storm collapsed, spreading the hurricane force winds out over a larger area and giving it a “bigger damage footprint,” said Jeff Masters, meteorology director at the private U.S.-based Weather Underground.
“It’s probably a bad thing it was doing this when it made landfall. Much of the housing in India is unable to withstand even a much weaker hurricane,” Masters said.
He also said the coast would not be alone in suffering heavy damage. “This is a remarkably strong storm. It’s going to carry hurricane-force winds inland for about 12 hours, which is quite unusual,” Masters said.
Hurricanes typically lose much of their force when they hit land, where there is less heat-trapping moisture feeding energy into the storm.
By Friday evening, some 420,000 people had been moved to higher ground or shelters in Orissa, and 100,000 more in neighboring Andhra Pradesh, said Indian Home Secretary Anil Goswami.