Storm Batters India as Half a Million People Evacuated

Cyclone Phailin, the most powerful tropical storm India’s eastern coast has faced since 1999, made landfall as heavy rains and winds packing up to 210 kilometers an hour lashed the region, flooding roads and uprooting trees.

Phailin, Thai for “sapphire,” struck near Gopalpur in Odisha about 600 kilometers (373 miles) southwest of Kolkata, L.S. Rathore, director-general of the India Meteorological Department said in a briefing yesterday. The cyclone would remain a “very severe cyclonic storm” for six hours after touching the coast, he said.

The government put the military on standby and evacuated about 550,000 people from their homes in low-lying coastal areas to public schools and community centers converted into storm shelters, Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde said. The heavy rains are likely to flood roads and rail links, cut off power for weeks, and cause “extensive damage” to the rice crops in the region, Shashidhar Reddy, vice chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority, said.

“This could well be the biggest evacuation for a cyclone in India,” Reddy said in an interview.

Phailin is the strongest storm to hit India since a cyclone with maximum wind speeds of 260 kilometers per hour lashed Odisha in 1999, killing about 9,000 people, damaging 2 million houses and destroying crops spread over 1.65 million hectares.

Deadly Storms

Twenty-six of the world’s 35 deadliest tropical cyclones, the storms that include hurricanes and typhoons, have occurred in the Bay of Bengal, according to Jeff Masters, founder of Weather Underground in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The National Disaster Management Authority dispatched a 1,500-strong rescue force to Odisha and Andhra Pradesh states, while the Indian Air Force said it sent two IL-76 airlift teams and was committing two C-130J Super Hercules planes.

Airlines have changed flight paths on the route between Mumbai and Bangkok, and between Bangkok and the Middle East, the Business Standard reported yesterday, citing an air traffic controller it didn’t identify.

Indigo, India’s biggest domestic carrier by market share, canceled some flights to and from Bhubaneshwar in Odisha, the company’s external communications agency said in an e-mailed response to questions yesterday. Ragini Chopra, a spokeswoman for Jet Airways (India) Ltd., did not respond to an e-mail.

India’s railways have also canceled or diverted some trains in the region, the Times Now television network reported.

In Jayapur village, about 40 kilometers from Paradip, several trees were uprooted, said Hare Krishna Barik, a supervisor at a construction company.

Swollen Rivers

“We are expecting massive flooding and have purchased enough rations to last a week,” 57-year-old Barik said in a telephone interview. “The two rivers near the village have swollen up and could breach anytime.”

In other parts of Odisha, there were already reports of casualities before the cyclone hit. Three people were crushed and killed by falling trees in Odisha, the Press Trust of India reported, citing unnamed police officials. Five deaths tied to the cyclone were reported in the state, NDTV channel reported.

Traffic on the state’s highways towards the high-risk areas has been restricted by the government, according to the news agency.

“We are prepared for the worst,” Pradipta Kumar Mohapatra, Odisha’s chief of relief operations, said by phone from the state capital of Bhubaneswar. The storm was set to severely affect the Ganjam, Khordha, Puri and Jagatsinghpur districts of Odisha and the Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh.

Rice Crop

India is the world’s largest rice exporter. About 10 percent is produced in Odisha, where up to a fifth of the crop may be damaged by winds and heavy rain, said David Streit, a senior forecaster for Commodity Weather Group LLC in Bethesda, Maryland. Most of the crop is maturing or ready for harvest and the storm might result in a loss of 2 percent of India’s rice, he said.

“Heavy downpour with heavy wind may cause extensive damage to the crop,” said Trilochan Mohapatra, director of the Central Rice Research Institute in Cuttack, Odisha. “Most of the standing crop was going to be harvested in the next 15 or 20 days.”

While “cane crops in Odisha may be devastated, considering the size of the India’s production area, it won’t mean much to the total harvest,” Drew Lerner, the president of World Weather Inc. in Overland Park, Kansas, said in a telephone interview.

In Andhra Pradesh, employees returned to work at the state-controlled power utility. They were on strike earlier this week protesting a proposal to split the state.

An estimated 320 million people, or about a quarter of India’s population, are vulnerable to cyclone-related hazards, according to the NDMA, which says the storms are four times more common in the Bay of Bengal east of the nation than in the Arabian Sea off its west coast.

“What is most important is that lots of lives may have been saved because they were evacuated,” said Mohapatra, Odisha’s chief of relief operations.