Killer cyclone wreaks havoc along Indian coast, at least 7 killed after mass evacuations

BHUBANESWAR, India (AFP) - Cyclone Phailin ripped through India’s east coast leaving a trail of destruction on Sunday and up to seven people dead after one of the biggest evacuations in India’s history to minimise casualties.

As emergency teams began assessing the damage from the country’s worst cyclone in 14 years, a massive relief effort came into full swing to distribute food, clear roads and help the injured.

The worst affected area around the town of Gopalpur, where the eye of Phailin packing winds of 200 kilometres an hour came ashore, remained cut off with emergency services rushing to reach there.

Elsewhere, roofs were blown off, trees fell across roads and debris was strewn over the streets of state capital Bhubaneswar where the winds had died down and heavy overnight rainfall had ceased.

“Our teams have fanned out on the ground, they are running searches, trying to check if there have been any casualties, check the extent of the damage,” Sandeep Rai Rathore, inspector general of the army’s National Disaster Response Force told AFP.

Orissa state relief commissioner Pradipta Kumar Mohapatra told AFP that three people had been confirmed dead, while other estimates put the toll at seven.

“We almost cleared out the danger zone. In the end, we cleared more than 8.61 lakh (861,000) people. It might be India’s biggest evacuation ever,” Mohapatra added to AFP.

With another 100,000 people in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh state evacuated on Saturday, the total figure is likely to be more than a million.

Local member of parliament for Orissa Jay Panda told local television that seven people had been killed.

“Casualties figures will change as information comes in from remote parts there are quite a few places which are cut off from communications,” he told NDTV television.

 The number of dead appeared to be “significantly lower than what it could have been” because of the mobilisation of emergency efforts before the storm stuck, he said.

The Indian weather office said that cyclone Phailin had weakened significantly after it moved inland, but warned it still posed a danger, particularly from flooding.

“The cyclone appears to be weakening. As of 5:30 am, we recorded wind speeds of about 130-140 kilometres per hour,” senior scientist from the Indian Meteorological Department M. Mohapatra told AFP in New Delhi.

Initial reports suggested Phailin had been less destructive than a more powerful storm in 1999 which hit the same coastal area – a region populated by fishermen and small-scale farmers who live in flimsy huts with thatched roofs or shanties.

A government report on the 1999 disaster put the death toll at 8,243, and said 445,000 livestock perished.

Authorities have said they are better prepared this time. The Orissa government had set itself a “zero casualty target” in the state of close to 40 million people.

“No one was prepared for the storm in 1999 but this time the government declared an emergency,” said telecoms worker Rajiv Baral as he bought emergency supplies from the shopkeeper Singh in Bhubaneswar on Saturday.

“Because of that we’ve been getting ready for it for two to three days.” Some of the deadliest storms in history have formed in the Bay of Bengal, including one in 1970 that killed hundreds of thousands of people in modern-day Bangladesh.