BHUBANESWAR, India (CNN) — Intense efforts of storm preparations will be put to the test in India as Tropical Cyclone Phailin made landfall Saturday night on the country’s east coast.
The storm made landfall in southern Odisha state, near the border with Andhra Pradesh state, about 9 p.m. [11 a.m. ET] based on images from satellite and radar.
With winds of 140 mph, the cyclone equates to a Category 4 hurricane.
The storm’s winds cover over 250 miles of India’s coastlines, and are bringing heavy rains along the same area.
India’s readiness, which included evacuating more than half a million people, will be compared to the outcome of a 1999 cyclone that claimed 10,000 lives.
To avoid a repetition of that disaster 14 years ago, this time, residents on India’s east coast had no choice.
“We have taken a zero-casualty approach,” said Odisha state disaster manager Kamal Lochan Mishra. “If people do not move, force will be used to evacuate them.”
More than 500,000 people were evacuated to safer places in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh states, national disaster-management authority chief Marri Shashidhar Reddy said.
Of them, more than 400,000 were moved to safety in Odisha alone, he told CNN.
There were “some reports” of people refusing to be evacuated, but they too were finally taken to safe shelters, Reddy said.
There are conflicting reports about the death toll so far.
Odisha’s director-general of police Prakash Mishra told CNN that two men and a woman had been killed by trees brought down by heavy winds in the state. Local police in Odisha told CNN’s sister network in India, CNN-IBN, that seven people had been killed by falling trees.
The tropical cyclone is expected bring a storm surge of as much as 20-23 feet (6-7 meters) in places, threatening densely populated areas that are vulnerable to flooding.
Many of those evacuated from low-lying coastal areas of Odisha left on foot or by bicycle, Kamal Lochan Mishra said.
They are being housed in nearly 250 emergency shelters set up in sturdy buildings like schools and government offices.
The Ganjam district of Odisha is expected to be the worst hit, with disaster preparedness efforts concentrated there, the network reported.
In Gopalpur, a coastal resort town in Ganjam, restaurants were shuttered and streets deserted Saturday afternoon, as rain lashed down. Tourists as well as local resident have been asked to leave the town.
Power is out in coastal areas including Kalingapatnam, from where about 80,000 people have been evacuated to relief camps, CNN-IBN reported. Some fishermen earlier told the broadcaster they had defied the order to leave, anxious to see what happened on the shore.
Some fear a repeat of what happened on October 29, 1999, when Cyclone 05B, also known as the Odisha Cyclone, made landfall in the same area, causing the loss of more than 10,000 lives.
The strongest tropical cyclone recorded in the Bay of Bengal, it had winds of 155 mph at landfall and caused more than $2 billion in damage.
Phailin was less intense than that at landfall and is likely to weaken more as it moves on shore, but will still bring storm surges and dump heavy rainfall on inland areas for the next two days.
Hurricane-force winds are expected to last until noon Sunday, and could extend several hundred kilometers inland as the storm moves into India.
Military units and National Disaster Response Force personnel have been deployed with relief materials and medical aid in coastal districts in preparation for Phailin’s arrival, CNN-IBN said. More than 20 medical teams have also been flown in to the region.
Federal and state government ministers are being briefed on the situation, the cabinet secretary said.
All flights to Odisha have been canceled and train services in the state are also disrupted, CNN’s sister network reported.
International humanitarian organization World Vision said it was helping local community groups prepare for the cyclone’s arrival.
“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 World Vision’s emergency response in India. “So while we are praying this storm loses intensity, we’re also preparing.”
The organization has worked for the past several years to train local people in disaster preparedness, including search and rescue, basic first aid and how to protect livestock, and has thousands of emergency response kits ready to hand out where needed.
“We believe communities are better prepared than they were when the devastating cyclone hit in 1999,” said Shah.
Rough seas, gales
Gale-force winds were whipping coastal areas of Odisha and north Andhra Pradesh and will continue to do so for hours after landfall, the India Meteorological Department said.
The storm surge could inundate low-lying areas of Odisha’s Ganjam, Khurda, Puri and Jagatsinghpur districts and the Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh during landfall, it said.
Rainfall, some of it very heavy, started Friday in coastal Odisha and northern Andhra Pradesh and has now spread to inland areas of Odisha and coastal areas of West Bengal state.
Seas off the coast of Odisha and northern Andhra Pradesh have become extremely rough as the cyclone approaches land. Fishing operations are suspended, and all fishermen were advised to return to shore.
The meteorological department warns of extensive damage to so-called kutcha houses, those made of flimsy materials such as mud and bamboo, as well as some damage to old buildings.
Power and communication lines are likely to suffer large-scale disruption. Extensive flooding will also disrupt rail and road traffic, and crops are likely to suffer major damage, it said.
People in affected areas may be at risk from flying debris, as well as the flooding of escape routes.
CNN’s Lonzo Cook reported from Bhubaneswar and Harmeet Shah Singh from New Delhi and Laura Smith-Spark wrote and reported in London. CNN’s Tom Sater and Ivan Cabrera contributed to this report.
(By Laura Smith-Spark, Harmeet Shah Singh and Lonzo Cook)