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Half a million flee as huge storm batters eastern India


Cyclone Phailin slammed into India's eastern coastline Saturday evening, as half a million people moved inland to shelters in hopes of escaping the storm’s heavy rains and destructive winds.


More than 500,000 people fled their homes on Saturday as cyclone Phailin slammed into India’s impoverished eastern coastline. The storm packed gusts of up to 240 kilometres per hour (150 miles per hour) as it churned over the Bay of Bengal, making it potentially the most powerful cyclone to hit the area since 1999, when more than 8,000 died, the Indian weather office said.


"We could see windspeed of over 330 kph and it’s expected that water levels will surge by nearly 15 feet (4.5 metres) in the low line area" , said Mankakini Gahlot, FRANCE 24’s correspondent in New Delhi.

The weather department warned of extensive damage to mud houses, major disruption of power and communication lines, and the flooding of rail tracks and roads. Flying debris is another threat.

"In a storm of this magnitude there is the potential for widespread damage to crops and livestock in the low-lying coastal areas and houses completely wiped away," said Kunal Shah, the head of the aid group World Vision’s emergency response team in India. Many of the people along the coast are subsistence fishermen and farmers, who live in mud-and-brick or thatched huts.

"Red alert"

India’s disaster preparations have improved significantly since the 1999 typhoon and aid workers praised precautions for Phailin such as early warnings, stocking of rations in shelters and evacuations.

"Government officials have identified over 800,000 shelters across the region and volunteers have been preparing since Friday to accommodate the masses who will be likely stay in these shelters at least next 48 hours", reported FRANCE 24’s Gahlot. "The army is on standby in two states for emergency and relief operations (...) officials said that food packages were ready to be dropped from helicopters in storm-affected regions."

The Indian Red Cross Society also had disaster response teams ready while the air force, fresh from helping evacuate thousands from floods in the Himalayas in June, flew in food and medical supplies to Bhubaneswar. While the storm is still technically one notch below the most powerful category of "super cyclone", the India Meteorological Department took no risk and sounded its highest "red alert" warning on Saturday morning.

(FRANCE 24 with news wires)

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