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Cyclone Phailin Hits India With 120 MPH Winds; Thousands Flee

NPR icon by Bill Chappell
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Biswaranjan Rout

Cyclone Phailin has struck India's east coast in the Bay of Bengal, where more than 500,000 people have evacuated from vulnerable areas along the coast. Phailin reportedly packed sustained winds of more than 120 mph when the eye of the storm hit; strong winds will likely persist for hours to come.

Update at 3:15 p.m. ET:

It is past midnight in India now, and the cyclone's winds aren't expected to dwindle for hours to come. Due to its massive size and creeping speed, the process of making landfall took a long time — and that also means the storm is soaking the areas it passes over, according to India's Meteorological Department.

Saying that some areas should expect rainfall totaling 9 inches or greater, the weather agency predicts "Gale wind speed reaching 100-120 kmph (62-75 mph) would also prevail for 6 hours and 60-70 [kmph] for subsequent 6 hours" in the hardest-hit areas.

From Orissa, the state along the coast where the storm hit, the BBC's Andrew North describes the scene in Brahmapur:

"The town was in total darkness, the headlights of our vehicle illuminating felled trees and power lines blocking roads. Store signs and other debris were being pitched high in the air by powerful storm gusts. Elaborate decorations for a major Hindu festival that people were due to celebrate this weekend were strewn across the main road."

Update at 11:45 a.m. ET: Cyclone Has Made Landfall

"Cyclone Phailin makes landfall near Gopalpur, with a windspeed of around 200 kmph," reports The Times of India. That's around 124 mph. The storm came ashore after its progress stalled.

As the storm bore down on the coast, government and military groups rushed to get personnel and equipment in place. A C-17 was used to airlift vehicles and ambulances into the area, reports The Times of India. The newspaper says at least four branches of India's military will take part in relief efforts.

In the hours before the storm hit, electrical utilities cut power to many areas in its path, hoping to reduce the risk of injuries and fires.

In its most recent update, the U.S. Navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Center reported that Phailin had maximum sustained winds of 138 mph, with gusts of more than 165 mph. In the next 12 hours, the center says, parts of the storm will likely maintain strong winds of up to 98 mph, gusting up to 120 mph.

In an opinion piece for India's LiveMint site, environmentalist Biswajit Mohanty says the coast in Orissa has lost its natural barriers to sea floods and storms, noting a combination of previous storms and development that flattened 80-foot sand dunes and removed mangroves.

Our original post continues:

The storm surge might measure as much as 10 feet; seawater could reach nearly 2,000 feet inland in the states of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, according to official predictions.

Earlier Saturday, the U.S. Navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Hawaii reported that Phailin's maximum sustained winds reached 150 mph, with gusts at 180 mph. If the storm were to make landfall packing such forceful winds, it would be the equivalent of a category 4 or 5 hurricane. Most forecasts predict Phailin will lose power before it hits the coast.

The large storm has already brought strong winds and rain to the India's coastal plains, which are prone to frequent flooding even without a cyclone's presence. People have been preparing for the worst, securing their belongings and gathering food and other supplies.

The AP reports from the scene:

"The skies were dark — almost black — at midday in parts of Orissa state, which will bear the brunt of the cyclone, and by mid-afternoon the winds were so strong that they could blow over grown men. Along the coast, seawater was pushing inland, swamping villages where many people survive as subsistence farmers in mud and thatch huts."

The predictions are especially dire given that many houses and other structures in the area are built using mud and thatch. As the BBC reminds us, "A deadly super-cyclone in 1999 killed more than 10,000 people in Orissa."

Phailin is being described as the most powerful cyclone to threaten India since that storm 14 years ago.

Phailin is the Thai word for sapphire. And while we're on the topic of names, you might see "Orissa" used almost interchangeably with "Odisha" in some reports. The state long known as Orissa formally became Odisha in 2011.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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