India’s Strongest Storm in 14 Years Set to Strike East Coast

India braced for the country’s strongest storm in 14 years to make landfall tomorrow after moving oil vessels out to sea, closing one of its biggest ports and deploying rescue teams to the eastern coastline.

The cyclone named Phailin, meaning sapphire in Thai, is expected to make landfall at about 6 p.m. local time, according to L.S. Rathore, director-general of the India Meteorological Department. The storm with wind speeds of as much as 220 kilometers (136.7 miles) an hour will hit areas of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh states, he told reporters in New Delhi.

“The storm has the potential to cause huge damage,” Rathore said. “We don’t contemplate it will further intensify. It will remain as a very severe cyclonic storm.”

Paradip Port Trust, India’s biggest dry bulk cargo facility, moved all its ships to sea and shut down operations, spokesman Prakash Chandra Mishra said by phone. The National Disaster Management Authority dispatched a 1,500-strong rescue force to the two states, while the Indian Air Force said it sent two IL-76 airlift teams and is committing two C-130J Super Hercules planes.

Andhra Pradesh’s Chief Minister Kiran Kumar Reddy urged citizens in low-lying areas to move to safer place in a statement today. There will probably be “large scale” disruptions to power and communication lines and rail and road traffic as well as extensive damage to crops, the statement said. About 64,000 people have been evacauted.

“We are prepared for the worst,” Pradipta Kumar Mohapatra, special relief commissioner of Odisha, said by phone from the state capital Bhubaneswar.

1999 Cyclone

Phailin is the strongest 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.

The storm will severely affect Ganjam, Khordha, Puri and Jagatsinghpur districts of Odisha and Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh. The storm could cause widespread damage to crops, destroy houses and disrupt power and communication lines, according to the meteorological department.

“Water, food and medicine are being kept to deal with the emergency,” said Vishwapati Trivedi, federal shipping secretary.

Visakhapatnam Port Trust, the second busiest facility on India’s east coast, has set up an emergency control office, Chairman R.P.S. Kahlon said by phone. The port handles cargo for Indian Oil Corp., the nation’s biggest state-owned refiner.

Electricity, Steel

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

Output dispatches at steelmaker Rashtriya Ispat Nigam Ltd., which has a manufacturing plant in Visakhapatnam, have not been affected, Finance Director P. Madhusudan said.

Andhra Pradesh is among the nation’s top rice producers and also harvests cotton and sugar. Odisha also grows rice.

“The storm will have a bigger effect on rice than sugar,” Sterling Smith, a futures specialist at Citigroup Inc. in Chicago said in a telephone interview. India is the world’s top rice exporter, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Tropical cyclones are known as hurricanes in the Atlantic and northern Pacific oceans and typhoons in the northwestern Pacific part of Asia. For each cyclone formed in the Arabian Sea on India’s west coast, the Bay of Bengal on the east coast has four, according to National Disaster Management Authority.

Recurring Cyclones

An estimated 320 million people, or about a quarter of the country’s total population, are vulnerable to cyclone-related hazards, according to NDMA. Recurring cyclones account for a large number of deaths, loss of public and private property and severe damage to infrastructure, reversing developmental gains at regular intervals.

“It’s a great challenge,” said M. Shashidhar Reddy, vice chairman of NDMA. “We will make all possible efforts to minimize loss of life and damage to properties.”

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