India braces for cyclone Phailin

Thousands take shelter as severe tropical storm bears down on east coast, bringing destructive winds and torrential rain

Rain and wind lashed India’s east coast and nearly 400,000 people fled to cyclone shelters after the government issued a red alert and warned of severe damage when one of the largest storms the country has ever seen makes landfall.

People gathered at mosques and temples in Odisha state praying cyclone Phailin would not be as devastating as a similar storm that killed 10,000 people 14 years ago. Heavy rain pounded coastal villages in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh.

Phailin had winds of at least 137mph (220km/h) on Saturday morning and was expected to cause a 3.4 metre surge in sea levels as well as potential widespread damage when it hit the coast late in the evening, the Indian meteorological department said.

Television showed families walking through the rain to shelters as gusts of wind snapped branches from trees. Tourists left popular beach resort Puri. Officials broadcast cyclone warnings through loudspeakers, radio and television.

Officials said Phailin was verging on becoming a “super cyclone”. London-based Tropical Storm Risk said the storm was already in that category and classed it as a category 5 storm – the strongest. The US navy’s weather service said wind at sea was gusting at 195mph.

Some forecasters likened its size and intensity to hurricane Katrina, which tore through the US Gulf coast and New Orleans in 2005. Its scale also stirred memories of a 1999 Indian storm when winds reaching speeds of 150mph battered Odisha for 30 hours.

This time the Odisha government said it was better prepared. Half a million people were expected to shelter in schools and other strong buildings when the storm hits. At least 60,000 people left their homes in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh on Friday.

Authorities warned of extensive damage to crops, village dwellings and old buildings, as well as disruption of power, water and rail services. Shelters were being stocked with rations and leave for government employees was cancelled.

A police official said a rescue effort was launched for 18 fishermen stranded four nautical miles at sea from Paradip, a major port in Odisha, after their trawler ran out of fuel.

Paradip halted cargo operations on Friday. All vessels were ordered to leave the port, which handles coal, crude oil and iron ore. An oil tanker holding about 2 million barrels of oil was also moved, an oil company source said.

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