BEHRAMPUR, India (AP) — An immense, powerful cyclone that lashed the eastern Indian coast, forcing 500,000 people to evacuate and causing widespread damage, weakened Sunday after making landfall.
Five people died in the rains that fell ahead of the storm, most killed by falling branches, Indian media reported, but the situation on the ground in many areas was still unclear Sunday morning after Cyclone Phailin made landfall the previous evening in Orissa state, and power and communications lines were down in coastal districts.
The storm, the strongest to hit India in more than a decade, washed away tens of thousands of mud and thatched roof huts and sent seawater surging inland, before weakening after making landfall.
In the state capital of Bhubaneshwar, billboards had fallen across the city and trees were uprooted. Power and telephone poles had been knocked over by the strong gusts.
Officials in both Orissa and Andhra Pradesh state have been stockpiling emergency food supplies and setting up shelters. The Indian military has put some of its forces on alert, and has trucks, transport planes and helicopters at the ready for relief operations.
Electricity utility authorities in Orissa had Sunday switched off the power in 12 coastal and other districts in the path of the cyclone after scores of electric pylons had toppled due to the torrential rain and high winds after the cyclone hit the region.
With some of the world's warmest waters, the Indian Ocean is considered a cyclone hot spot, and some of the deadliest storms in recent history have come through the Bay of Bengal, including a 1999 cyclone that also hit Orissa and killed 10,000 people.
U.S. forecasters had repeatedly warned that Phailin would be immense, and as the cyclone swept across the Bay of Bengal toward the Indian coast Saturday, satellite images showed its spinning tails covering an area larger than France.
Roads were all but empty Saturday as high waves pounded the coastline of Orissa state. Seawater pushed inland, swamping villages where many people survive as subsistence farmers in mud and thatch huts.
In Behrampur, a town about 10 kilometers (7 miles) inland from where the eye of the storm hit, the sky blackened quickly around the time of landfall, with heavy winds and rains pelting the empty streets.
Window panes shook and shattered against the wind. Outside, objects could be heard smashing into walls.
"My parents have been calling me regularly ... they are worried," said Hemant Pati, 27, who was holed up in a Behrampur hotel with 15 other people from the coastal town hit first by the storm.
A few hours before it hit land, the eye of the storm collapsed, spreading the hurricane force winds out over a larger area and giving it a "bigger damage footprint," said Jeff Masters, meteorology director at the U.S.-based private Weather Underground.
"It's probably a bad thing it was doing this when it made landfall. Much of the housing in India is unable to withstand even a much weaker hurricane," Masters said.
He also said coasts would not be alone in suffering heavy damage. "This is a remarkably strong storm. It's going to carry hurricane-force winds inland for about 12 hours, which is quite unusual," Masters said.
Hurricanes typically lose much of their force when they hit land, where there is less heat-trapping moisture feeding energy into the storm.
By Friday evening, some 420,000 people had been moved to higher ground or shelters in Orissa, and 100,000 more in neighboring Andhra Pradesh, said Indian Home Secretary Anil Goswami.
L.S. Rathore, the head of the Indian Meteorological Department, predicted a storm surge of 3-3.5 meters (10-11.5 feet), but several U.S. experts had predicted a much higher wall of water would blast ashore. Meteorologist Ryan Maue of the private U.S. weather firm Weather Bell predicted that, even in the best-case scenario, there would be a surge of 7-9 meters (20-30 feet).
The height of the surge, though, remained unclear Sunday morning.
A storm surge is the big killer in such storms, though heavy rains are likely to compound the destruction. The Indian government said some 12 million people would be affected by the storm, including millions living far from the coast.
The 1999 cyclone — similar in strength to Phailin but covering a smaller area — threw out a 5.9-meter (19-foot) storm surge.
Several hours before the storm hit, about 200 villagers were jammed into a two-room, concrete schoolhouse in the village of Subalaya, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the coast, while local emergency officials distributed food and water. The roads were almost empty, except for two trucks bringing more evacuees to the school. Children shivered in the rain as they stepped down from the vehicles, following women carrying bags jammed with possessions.
Many had fled low-lying villages for the shelter, but some left behind relatives who feared the storm could wipe out lifetimes of work.
"My son had to stay back with his wife because of the cattle and belongings," said 70-year-old Kaushalya Jena, weeping in fear inside the makeshift shelter. "I don't know if they are safe."
In Bhubaneshwar, the Orissa state capital, government workers and volunteers were putting together hundreds of thousands of food packages for relief camps.
The state's top official, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, appealed for calm Saturday.
"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.
Associated Press writers Kay Johnson in Bhubaneshwar, Katy Daigle in New Delhi and Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this report.