Evacuations blunt impact of savage cyclone

India began sorting through miles of wreckage after Cyclone Phailin roared ashore, flooding towns and villages and destroying tens of thousands of thatched homes, but officials said the country had been spared the widespread loss of life that many had feared.

About 18 hours after the storm the strongest to hit India in more than a decade made landfall in eastern Orissa state, officials said they knew of only seven fatalities, most of them people killed by falling branches or collapsing buildings in the rains ahead of the cyclone.

The final death toll will almost certainly climb, and parts of the cyclone-battered coast remain isolated by downed communication links and blocked roads. But initial indications are that the Government's evacuation saved many lives.

"Damage to property is extensive," Amitabh Thakur, the top police officer in the Orissa district worst-hit by the cyclone. "But few lives have been lost," he said, crediting the mass evacuations.

A huge relief effort came into full swing to distribute food, clear roads and help the injured. The worst affected area around the town of Gopalpur, where winds of 200km/h came ashore, remained cut off.

Elsewhere, roofs were blown off, trees fell across roads and debris was strewn over the streets of state capital Bhubaneswar, where the winds had died down and heavy overnight rainfall had ceased.

"Our teams have fanned out on the ground, they are running searches, trying to check if there have been any casualties, check the extent of the damage," said Sandeep Rai Rathore, inspector-general of the army's National Disaster Response Force.

Orissa state relief commissioner Pradipta Kumar Mohapatra said that three people had been confirmed dead, while other estimates put the toll at seven.

"We almost cleared out the danger zone. In the end, we cleared more than 8.61 lakh [861,000] people. It might be India's biggest evacuation ever," Mohapatra said.

With another 100,000 people in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh state evacuated on Saturday, the total figure is likely to be more than a million.

Member of parliament for Orissa, Jay Panda, told local television that seven people had been killed.

"Casualties figures will change as information comes in from remote parts. There are quite a few places which are cut off from communications," he said.

The number of dead appeared to be "significantly lower than what it could have been" because of the mobilisation of emergency efforts before the storm struck, he said.

The Indian weather office said that Cyclone Phailin had weakened significantly after it moved inland, but warned it still posed a danger, particularly from flooding.

It had slowed significantly overnight, but meteorologists were calling for heavy rains across the state.

"Its intensity is still strong, but after crossing the coast it has weakened considerably," Sharat Sahu, a top official with the Indian Meteorological Department. in Orissa, said.

Storms typically lose much of their force when they hit land, where there is less heat-trapping moisture feeding energy into the storm.

In Berhampur, about 10km inland from where the eye of the cyclone struck, there were no reports of deaths. But the storm had wrought havoc on the small town, with the wind shattering windows, blowing down trees and power poles and terrifying residents.

In Bhubaneshwar, billboards and traffic lights had fallen across the city and trees were uprooted, but early reports indicated the state capital escaped major damage.

"The 1999 storm was very big, but this was not as strong at least in Bhubaneshwar," said Upendra Malik, a city employee leading a crew working with axes and coils of heavy rope to clear roads of fallen trees and branches.

"We've just started to assess the damage and coastal areas will have fared worse."

With most communications down, and many roads impassable because of fallen trees, there was no news at all yet from many coastal towns and villages.

Officials in both Orissa and Andhra Pradesh state had been stockpiling emergency food supplies and setting up shelters. The Indian military put some of its forces on alert, with trucks, transport planes and helicopters at the ready for relief operations.

Electric utility authorities in Orissa had switched off the power in 12 districts in the path of the cyclone after scores of power pylons had toppled from the torrential rain and high winds.

The Indian Ocean is considered a cyclone hotspot, 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. Forecasters had repeatedly warned that Phailin would be immense, and as the cyclone swept across the Bay of Bengal toward the Indian coast, satellite images showed its spinning tails covering an area larger than France.

Seawater pushed inland along the Orissa coast, swamping villages where many people survive as subsistence farmers in mud and thatch huts. In Berhampur, the sky blackened quickly around the time of landfall, with heavy winds and rains pelting the empty streets. Window panes shook and shattered in the wind. Outside, wind-blown 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 Berhampur hotel.

L.S. Rathore, the head of the Indian Meteorological Department, predicted a storm surge of 3m to 3.5m, but several US experts had predicted that a much higher wall of water would blast ashore. Meteorologist Ryan Maue of the private US weather firm Weather Bell predicted that, even in the best-case scenario, there would be a surge of 7m to 9m. The height of the surge, though, remained unclear.

Meanwhile, a major clean-up operation is under way in the Philippines after Typhoon Nari pounded the archipelago's north and left 13 dead.

Authorities issued a storm warning for the east of the country as the military, along with civilian relief workers, struggled to clear roads of toppled trees and power pylons wrecked by Saturday's storm.

"The general situation is getting better, but it would take some time to clear the roads of fallen trees and (electrical) posts," civil defence office spokesman Reynaldo Balido said.

Power and telecommunication facilities had been restored in affected areas, although some cities and towns in five provinces on Luzon, the country's most populous island, were without electricity, he said.

Typhoon Nari tore into the country's northeast coast early Saturday and cut a westward path through the farming regions of Luzon. Thirteen people were killed as the storm ripped roofs off homes and buildings, toppling trees and triggering flash floods and landslides before blowing away into the South China Sea.

- AFP, AP

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