PUDIMADAKA (Reuters) - At least 100,000 people were evacuated on India's eastern seaboard on Saturday as cyclone Hudhud bore down, threatening to devastate farmland and fishing villages when it hits the coast on Sunday morning.
The India Meteorological Department (IMD) rated Hudhud as a"very severe cyclonic storm" that could pack gusts of up to 165 kmh and dump more than 24.5cm of rain in some places when it makes landfall.
Around 100,000 people have been evacuated in the coastal state of Andhra Pradesh to high-rise buildings, shelters and relief centres, with plans to move a total of 300,000 to safety.
Authorities further north in Odisha state said they were monitoring the situation and would, if necessary, move 300,000 people most at risk.
"We have already shifted about 10,000 people from low-lying areas and plan to evacuate 14,000 more," N. Yubaraj, administrative chief of the coastal district of Visakhapatnam district, told Reuters.
Visakhapatnam, also known as Vizag, is the largest city in Andhra Pradesh and hosts a major Indian naval base.
In Pudimadaka, a coastal village where many are fishermen, locals have been reluctant to leave despite forecasts warning that a major cyclone was coming since the middle of this week.
"People are adamant. They are not willing to go. For the past three days we have been convincing them. Thank God. Now they agreed," Vasantha Rayudu, a local administrative officer said while supervising the evacuation work.
"We convinced the people after holding a series of discussions with the village elders," said Rayudu, sitting in a small room with dozens of officials and policemen as huge waves crashed on the coast few metres away.
As a man beat a small drum and urged people by a loudspeaker to board nearby buses, tea seller V. Varalakshmi said she had packed her bags, but did not want to go.
"For the past 14 years, I have been selling tea here, the sea has never caused any harm to us," the 52-year-old woman said as she served a customer.
Cyclones in the Bay of Bengal are common at this time of year. These often cause deaths, mass evacuations of coastal villages, disruption of power and phone services as well as widespread damage to crops and property in eastern India and Bangladesh.
Hudhud was tracking west-northwest, around 330km off the coast, and was strong enough to have a "high humanitarian impact" on more than 10 million people, the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System (GDACS), run by the United Nations and the European Commission, said.
The system also forecast a storm surge of 1.7m. The IMD said this could result in flooding of low-lying coastal areas around Visakhapatnam, Vijayanagaram and Srikakulam.
The evacuation effort was comparable in scale to the one that preceded Cyclone Phailin exactly a year ago, and which was credited with minimising the fatalities to 53. When a huge storm hit the same area 15 years ago, 10,000 people died.
Authorities have been stocking cyclone shelters with dry rations, water purification tablets and generators. They have opened up 24-hour emergency control rooms and dispatched satellite phones to officials in charge of vulnerable districts.
"Hudhud is now the size of Phailin, though not yet as strong," said Eric Holthaus, a US-based meteorologist at online magazine Slate.
"It's strengthened overnight, and most computer models are intent on bringing it up to nearly the same strength as Phailin was at landfall.
"It's worrying that international agencies are rating Hudhud's current strength higher than IMD's peak forecast, but we can only hope that the evacuations under way are sufficient to protect those in the storm's path," Holthaus said.
Forecasters say that, after making landfall, Hudhud is expected to lose some of its potency. It is likely to weaken later on Monday to a depression with peak gusts of 65 kmh.