GOPALPUR/BHUBANESWAR: Cyclone Phailin kept its stormy date with the Odisha coast, striking just off Gopalpur around 9.15 pm on Saturday with winds raging at 200 km an hour whipping up a storm surge of a over 3 meters and inundating areas up to half a km inland.
Thousands of people braced for a fateful night as gale force winds swept Odisha from Gopalpur up to Paradip and northern Andhra Pradesh too faced high speed storms, torrential rain and surging waters.
Saturday night will prove crucial in determining if evacuation efforts have succeeded as the danger now lies in continuous, high intensity rainfall and winds in the range of 150-200 kmph that can flood low-lying areas and damage vulnerable huts and poorly constructed houses.
Phailin’s intensity is likely to wane after six hours as the cyclone becomes a “conventional” storm with wind speeds of 70-80 kmph. After six hours the weather system would have moved on to neighbouring states like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.
With Odisha evacuating 3.5 lakh people and Andhra Pradesh moving another 2 lakh to safety, authorities hope loss of human lives will be minimal. Yet, with 12 cm rain expected to pound the coastal and inland areas in the next 24 hours, as rescue machinery, including 18 choppers, 12 aircraft and two Navy ships, is at standby.
Phailin is not a super cyclone, but the howling winds and the sight of trees being uprooted trees revived traumatic memories of the 1999 cyclone that killed an estimated 10,000 and left lakhs homeless in 14 coastal districts of Odisha.
As the eye of the cyclone – about 25 km across – struck the Gopalpur area, the storm surge inundated areas of Ganjam, Khurda, Puri and Jagatsinghpur districts of Odisha and Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh. Gopalpur received a hammering as mediapersons and locals secured themselves within official buildings.
Roofs of kuccha houses and asbestos sheets could be seen flying off in a distance. Even before Phailin reached Odisha shores, at least five persons were killed by trees felled by a storm.
As Phailin reached its predicted landfall, earth sciences secretary Shailesh Nayak told ToI, “Our predictions on the cyclone’s speeds have been proved correct. But the next 24 hours will be critical as heavy rains and high speed winds can cause damage.”
Even at sea, the cyclone was 500 km across, its massive stretch encompassing hundreds of cloud masses who’s down drafts cause winds to gust to 240 kmph. It did not lose speed as it approached the Odisha coast and is expected to carry on in its path inland without stopping.
The darkness of the night will make it difficult to immediately assess damage in terms of roads blocked, telephone and power lines down, but even before the cyclone arrived, railway and air schedules were cancelled.
Markets and roads looked deserted in Bhubaneswar and Cuttack on Saturday as panic-struck people preferred to stay indoors. Durga puja pandals wore a forlorn look as heavy rain lashed coastal areas and sky remained thickly overcast. All passenger flights from and to Biju Patnaik Airport here were cancelled.
“It’s wait and watch time. Let’s pray that god does not unleash much damage,” said Saroj Sahoo, a retired government servant in Bhubaneswar. The city’s busiest road Janpath hardly had any vehicle plying.
Puja organizers cancelled all cultural events, removed flashy lights and vulnerable structures. “The cultural programmes automatically stand cancelled. We pray goddess Durga to save the pandals from getting blown away,” said Pabitra Mohan Behera, president of the Nayapalli puja committee in Bhubaneswar. The twin cities of Cuttack and Bhubaneswar have around 200 big budget pandals, spending Rs 30 lakh to Rs 50 lakh each.
The sea has inundated low-lying areas and parts of Gopalpur like Bada Aryjapalli and Podampeta. Several trees were uprooted and broken. Electricity supply was broken at most places. The Ganjam administration managed to evacuate around 1.20 lakh people within 10 km off the coast; in other parts of Odisha like Puri, Jagatsinghpur and Kendrapada another 2.3 lakh people were evacuated.
In Ganjam, the administration had designated 1,060 buildings as cyclone shelters. Official sources said in addition to the people moved away by the administration, another 30,000 people are expected to have gone to safer locations on their own. Even then, officers fear the loss to human and cattle life and property.
Civil and police officers and elected representatives were working towards minimizing human casualty, with chief minister Naveen Patnaik laying maximum emphasis on it. At cyclone shelters, cooked food is being served while dry food has been kept ready to tackle the post-cyclone needs, he added.
Cuttack and Bhubaneswar experienced frequent power cuts starting from Friday night with power distributor CESU snapping supply as a precautionary measure.
“We are keeping a close watch of the situation and cutting power depending on the winds situation. Wherever the speed crosses 50 km per hour, we will stop the power supply completely,” said CESU chief operating officer Sudarsana Nayak. Hundreds of trees were uprooted in Paradip, Jagatsinghpur and Puri districts by Saturday morning much before the anticipated landfall.