PURI (India) • At least two people were killed yesterday as eastern India was slammed by the strongest cyclone in five years, with strong winds bringing down trees and power lines and causing "extensive" damage in the tourist town of Puri in the state of Odisha.
Moves by the authorities to evacuate around a million people in the projected path of the cyclone appear to have minimised the human toll of Cyclone Fani. Cyclone tracker Tropical Storm Risk put Fani as a powerful Category Four storm on a scale of one to five.
The cyclone spent days building up power in the northern reaches of the Bay of Bengal before it struck the coast of the state of Odisha at around 8am yesterday, the state-run India Meteorological Department (IMD) said.
"The eye of the cyclone has moved over the land," said Dr K.J. Ramesh, director-general of the IMD.
The storm was expected to weaken as it progressed towards West Bengal, a state adjoining Odisha. Odisha and West Bengal, which are expected to bear the brunt of the storm, were forecast to get heavy showers yesterday and today, according to the weather office.
"I can confirm two deaths for now. One old man in one of the shelters died because of (a) heart attack. Another person went out in the storm despite our warnings and died because a tree fell on him," Odisha state special relief commissioner Bishnupada Sethi said.
Howling winds gusting at up to 200kmh whipsawed trees, uprooting scores, and driving rain impacted visibility, while streets were deserted in the state capital Bhubaneswar and Puri.
One witness in Puri reported seeing a small car being pushed along a road by the winds before being turned over.
"It just went dark and then suddenly we could barely see 5m in front of us," the man told Agence France-Presse from a hotel where he had taken shelter.
TWO CONFIRMED DEAD
I can confirm two deaths for now. One old man in one of the shelters died because of (a) heart attack. Another person went out in the storm despite our warnings and died because a tree fell on him.
ODISHA STATE SPECIAL RELIEF COMMISSIONER BISHNUPADA SETHI
"There were roadside food carts, store signs all flying by in the air. The wind is deafening; there is no reason to risk going out there," he said, before phone lines were cut.
"Damage in Puri is extensive, power supply (and) telephone lines disrupted," Mr Sethi said.
A few police vehicles and tractors had tried to move fallen trees or push aside collapsed walls, but they soon disappeared as the storm grew in power. Media reports said hundreds of trees were uprooted at Chilika Lake, just south of Puri, in the first violent winds.
Close to 60km inland, winds brought down electricity poles in Bhubaneswar, where the authorities had ordered the airport to stay closed. Schools and colleges in Odisha were also shut.
While the Indian Railways cancelled most trains in the two states, special services were organised to get Hindu pilgrims away from Puri. A major hospital in the city suffered extensive structural damage but all patients and staff were safe, the authorities said.
The airport in Kolkata, in the neighbouring state of West Bengal, was also shut.
"It was a massive cyclone. Like many others, our house is flooded. Boundary walls of houses around us have collapsed, trees have been uprooted. It is a panic situation," Ms Anuradha Mohanty, a Bhubaneswar resident, said.
People packed into shelters, spreading mats to wait out the storm, television and social media showed. More than 600 pregnant women were moved to safe locations, with nearly 500 ambulances on standby.
Some 242 medical institutions have been provided with power back-up, government officials said.
Hundreds of disaster management personnel were deployed in Odisha, and doctors and other medical staff were told to defer any leave until May 15.
Oil refiner Indian Oil Corporation said the cyclone would have no impact on its refinery on the coast of Odisha, though personnel were told to stay indoors.
Exploration firms ONGC and Reliance Industries were taking precautions at their offshore rigs, while state-run power company NTPC had no plans to shut down its 3,000MW Talcher power plant.
In neighbouring Bangladesh to the north-east, the authorities have begun moving 500,000 people from seven coastal districts, a government minister said.
The storm is due to hit Bangladesh late today and ahead of that, ports have been ordered shut, a government official said.
India's cyclone season can last from April to December, when severe storms batter coastal cities and cause widespread deaths and damage to crops and property in both India and Bangladesh. But recent technological advances have helped meteorologists predict weather patterns more accurately.
A super-cyclone battered the coast of Odisha for 30 hours in 1999, killing 10,000 people. In 2013, a mass evacuation of nearly a million people likely saved thousands of lives. Cyclones typically quickly lose power as they move inland.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS