Nearly 800,000 people in eastern India have been evacuated ahead of a major cyclone packing winds gusting up to 200 kilometres (125 miles) per hour and torrential rains, officials said Thursday.
The Indian weather service said Extremely Severe Cyclonic Storm Fani should make landfall on Friday around noon (0630 GMT) in Odisha state and barrel north-northeastwards towards Bangladesh on a pathway that is home to more than 100 million people.
As it progresses into West Bengal state it should weaken gradually into a severe cyclonic storm with winds of 90-100 kph and gusts of 115 kph before entering Bangladesh as a cyclonic storm on Saturday evening with winds of 60-70 kph.
In Odisha on Friday, along with “extremely heavy” rainfall in places, a storm surge of about 1.5 metres (five feet) is “very likely” to inundate some low-lying areas, according to the Indian Meteorological Department.
A state relief department official told AFP that 780,000 people were moved to safer places overnight from at least 13 districts of Odisha, home to 46 million people, which will bear the brunt of the storm.
“We are expecting more than a million people to move out of the danger zone in next 12 hours,” Bishnupada Sethi, Odisha Special Relief Commissioner, told AFP.
Some 3,000 shelters in schools and government buildings have been set up to accommodate more than a million people. More than 100,000 dry food packets are ready to be dropped if needed, reports said.
On Thursday the storm, which reports said was the biggest to hit eastern India in nearly two decades, was brewing in the Bay of Bengal and moving steadily and ominously towards land.
It was predicted to pack sustained wind speeds of 180-190 kph and gusts up to 200 kph, equivalent in strength to a Category 3 to 4 hurricane.
It was expected to make landfall near the Hindu holy town of Puri, a major tourist hotspot.
More than 100 trains have been cancelled in the past 48 hours, according to Indian Railways. Three special trains were running from Puri to evacuate pilgrims and tourists.
Flights have been cancelled in and out of Odisha’s capital Bhubaneswar for 24 hours from midnight (1830 GMT).
Authorities have asked tourists to leave coastal areas and avoid unnecessary travel. Special buses have been deployed in Puri and other towns.
The management of one hotel in Puri visited by AFP as intermittent heavy rain fell outside had been told to vacate all 175 rooms, causing a wedding party to be cut short.
Dozens of officials were making announcements on hand-held megaphones across the coastal belt asking residents to leave their homes.
Fishermen have been advised not to venture out and the Indian Navy has also been put on alert.
India’s biggest oil and gas producer ONGC has evacuated close to 500 employees from offshore installations and moved drilling rigs to safer locations, the Press Trust of India reported.
“Heavy rains are expected in all the coastal districts amid fears of flash floods. We are all geared up for the challenge,” said Sethi.
– ‘Total destruction’ –
Forecasters have warned of the “total destruction” of thatched houses, the bending and uprooting of power and communication poles, the “flooding of escape routes” and damage to crops in some areas.
Bangladesh disaster management chief Mohammad Hashim said that 3,600 cyclone shelters had been opened in 13 coastal districts.
Coastal-area farmers in Bangladesh were instructed to harvest their paddy fields as a surging tide may inundate and ruin crops.
Fani is the fourth major storm to slam into India’s east coast in three decades, the last in 2017 when Cyclone Ockhi left nearly 250 people dead and more than 600 missing in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
The worst cyclone on record in Odisha in 1999 killed almost 10,000 people and caused an estimated $4.5 billion worth of devastation.
“I am not scared,” said Loknath, 24, who works in a bookshop in Cottack in Odisha. “I am accustomed to such types of situation… Nothing will happen except rain and wind.”