Strong winds and heavy rains pounded India’s eastern coastline Saturday, as hundreds of thousands of people took shelter from a massive, powerful cyclone that was expected to reach land in a few hours.
The skies were dark — almost black — at midmorning in Bhubaneshwar, the capital of Orissa state and about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the coast. Roaring winds made palm trees sway wildly, and to the south, seawater was pushing inland.
By Friday evening, some 600,000 people had been moved to higher ground or shelters in Orissa, which is expected to bear the brunt of the cyclone, said Surya Narayan Patro, the state’s top disaster management official.
About 12 hours before Cyclone Phailin’s expected landfall, meteorologists held out hope that it might hit while in a temporary weakened state. But no matter what, it was forecast to be large and deadly. Satellite images showed the cyclone filling nearly the entire Bay of Bengal, an area larger than France.
“A storm this large can’t peter out that fast,” said Ryan Maue, a meteorologist at Weather Bell, a private U.S. weather firm. “There’s nothing to stop it at this point.”
Maue said that even in the best-case scenario there would be a storm surge of 7-9 meters (20-30 feet).
A storm surge — the giant wall of water that that a cyclone blasts ashore — is the big killer in these storms, even more than winds.
The storm already has been large and powerful for nearly 36 hours, and those winds have built up tremendous amount of surge, Maue said.
Officials canceled holy day celebrations and stockpiled emergency supplies in coastal Orissa and Andhra Pradesh states.
The Indian Meteorological Department warned that Phailin was a “very severe cyclonic storm” that was expected to hit with maximum sustained winds of 210-220 kilometers (130-135 miles) per hour.
However, the U.S. Navy’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Hawaii forecast maximum sustained winds of 269 kph (167 mph), with gusts up to 315 kph (196 mph).
Indian officials also made less dire predictions about the storm surge, saying only that it would be at least 3 meters (10 feet) high.
In Bhubaneshwar, government workers and volunteers were putting together hundreds of thousands of food packages to be distributed at relief camps.
The state’s top official, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, appealed for people to cooperate with officials as they order people to leave their homes.
“I request everyone to not panic. Please assist the government. Everyone from the village to the state headquarters have been put on alert,” he told reporters.
In Paradip, the Orissa port city hammered in a 1999 cyclone, at least seven ships were put to sea to ride out the storm, with other boats shifted to safer parts of the harbor, officials said.
U.S. forecasters repeatedly warned that the storm would be immense.
“If it’s not a record it’s really, really close,” University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy told The Associated Press. “You really don’t get storms stronger than this anywhere in the world ever. This is the top of the barrel.”
To compare it to killer U.S. storms, McNoldy said Phailin is nearly the size of Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,200 people in 2005 and caused devastating flooding in New Orleans, but also has the wind power of 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, which packed 265 kph (165 mph) winds at landfall in Miami.
If the storm continues on its current path without weakening, it is expected to cause large-scale power and communications outages and shut down road and rail links, officials said. There would also be extensive damage to crops.
Patro said tens of thousands of more people will be moved to safer areas before the cyclone hits. “No one will be allowed to stay in mud and thatched houses in the coastal areas,” he said.
The government also began evacuating 64,000 people from the low-lying areas of three vulnerable districts in neighboring Andhra Pradesh state, said state Revenue Minister N. Raghuveera Reddy.
The sea had already pushed inland as much as 40 meters (130 feet) in parts of Andhra Pradesh.
Officials have been stockpiling emergency food supplies, and setting up shelters for people expected to flee the heavy winds and rains. The Indian air force said four transport planes and 18 helicopters were being kept ready for relief operations in the region.
What makes this storm so fearsome is that there’s no wind shear to weaken it and the water that is fueling it is warm and deep, McNoldy said. Those are the ingredients for a record storm.
The Bay of Bengal has been the scene of some of the deadliest storms in recent history. The 1999 Orissa cyclone, which was similar in strength to Phailin, killed 10,000 people.