India east coast braces for severe cyclone

NEW DELHI (AFP) - A severe cyclone gathered pace as it bore down on India's east coast on Friday, with local authorities evacuating villagers and fishermen a month after a killer storm forced another massive rescue effort, officials said.

The storm packing sustained winds of up to 120km an hour was expected to make landfall on the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh late Friday, accompanied by a storm surges of up to 1.5m.

The Indian weather office warned of "extensive damage to thatched roofs and huts. Minor damage to power and communication lines due to uprooting of large avenue trees. Flooding of escape routes".

Classed as "severe", Helen is considerably weaker than the "very severe" cyclone Phailin which slammed into the east coast further to the north in October, killing at least 18 and leaving a trail of destruction.

Some 20 rescue teams had been deployed in the flood zone on Thursday to provide help, Tripti Parule, said spokesman for the National Disaster Management Agency.

"We are aiming for zero-casualty. That is our priority. Evacuations of thousands have already taken place and provision for food, water and shelter are also on track.

It's the usual flood drill," said Ms Parule.

The most powerful storms which strike India at this time of year are classed as "super-cyclones" followed by "very severe" then "severe".

Cyclone Phailin had sustained winds of more than 200km an hour which uprooted trees, overturned trucks, snapped power lines and flooded large tracts of farmland.

In 1999, more than 8,000 people were killed when a cyclone hit the state of Orissa, which took years to recover.