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Red alert issued as massive cyclone bears down on India

India gears up for most powerful storm to hit the Orissa area in 14 years

AFP , Saturday 12 Oct 2013
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India issued a red alert as a massive cyclone bore down on the east coast Saturday, threatening widespread destruction and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people.

Cyclone Phailin was packing gusts of up to 240 kilometres per hour (150 miles per hour) and has the potential to be the most powerful storm to hit the area in 14 years.

"The very severe cyclonic storm Phailin is moving menacingly towards the coast," special relief commissioner for the state of Orissa, Pradipta Mohapatra, said.

Authorities said they expected a three-metre (10-foot) storm surge when the cyclone hits in the early evening.

Heavy waves were already pounding the coast and trees were bent double by powerful winds ahead of the cyclone's arrival.

Tying up his boat on the coast of Orissa, 60-year-old fisherman Tonka Rao said he was worried as he eyed the building waves.

"This boat cost 400,000 rupees ($6,500). I don't want to lose it," he told AFP before taking shelter.

At least 250,000 people from low-lying areas in coastal districts have been evacuated to shelters, many of them taking their belongings with them as they hunkered down to sit out the storm.

Authorities were rushing to get people out of the storm's path, but some were reluctant to move.

"We've been instructed by the government to use force in case people resist," said Mohapatra.

A 300-strong team of army doctors, engineers and rescue workers was in Orissa and fanning out to areas expected to be worst hit by the storm, Mohapatra said.

The Indian Red Cross Society also had disaster response teams ready, while the air force put planes and helicopters on standby.

Heavy rain was already lashing Orissa and neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, also due to be hit by the storm.

The US Navy's Joint Typhoon Centre said gusts could reach as high as 315 kilometres an hour, while the London-based Tropical Storm Risk put Phailin in its most severe "super cyclone" category.

The cyclone is set to strike the same coastal area dotted with flimsy huts and shanties that was hit by a powerful storm in 1999 that killed more than 8,000 people.

The high winds could carry "huge objects" warned Laxman Singh Rathore, India's director-general of meteorology.

"The storm has high damage potential," he added.

The Indian Meteorological Department issued a so-called "red message" warning of the "very severe" cyclone's impending arrival.

Satellite photos showed an intimidating cloud mass barreling across the Bay of Bengal, with forecasters saying the danger zone was about 150 kilometres (90 miles) wide.

Rathore warned of widespread crop damage in impoverished Orissa, which relies heavily on agriculture.

It took years for crop yields to recover after soil was contaminated by saltwater during the 1999 cyclone, leaving the state dependent on aid.

In Orissa's capital, panic buying saw many shops run low on food.

The 1999 cyclone had higher wind speeds and a larger storm surge — six metres — than are currently predicted by the Indian weather office.

But "with the horrendous experience of 1999 still haunting them, no one wants to take anything for granted," retired government officer Yudhistir Mohanty said.

Some foreign forecasters have suggested India's weather office is underestimating the power of Phailin — a word that means "sapphire" in Thai.

A government report on the 1999 disaster put the death toll at 8,243, adding that 445,000 livestock perished.

Authorities have said they are better prepared this time around.

The Orissa government said it was setting a "zero casualty target" in the state of close to 40 million people and was seeking "100 percent" evacuation of people in the worst-affected areas.

Cyclones are a common occurrence in the Bay of Bengal at the end of the steamy monsoon season, when sea temperatures are at their warmest.

A cyclone that struck Bangladesh in 1970 killed hundreds of thousands of people.

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