A man watches an impending cyclone in India (Photo: Reuters)
Thousands of people were evacuated from their homes in southeast India on Wednesday as a cyclone slammed into the coast, with officials warning of possible flooding and damage to houses.
Cyclone Nilam struck the historic port of Mahabalipuram, 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of Chennai, and is forecast to cross the states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh overnight.
"More than 5,000 evacuations have been completed," Jayraman, a disaster management official in Chennai who only uses one name, told AFP.
"We have evacuated thousands of people from Mahabalipuram and nearby coastal districts. We are monitoring the situation in Chennai but have not ordered any evacuations there."
The latest bulletin from the India Meteorological Department predicted that winds gusting up to 100 kilometres (60 miles) an hour would trigger flooding of low-lying areas due to a sea surge and heavy rain.
It said the cyclone would likely cause extensive damage to thatched roofs and huts and also uproot large trees, leading to power blackouts and communication problems.
Residents living in huts along the coast were advised to move to safer areas and fishermen were ordered not to go out to sea.
"We have advised all the schools and colleges to remain closed for the day," Jayraman told AFP.
"All maritime activities have been suspended and the government is monitoring the situation closely. We expect the cyclone to weaken as it moves away from the coast."
Chennai, the state capital of Tamil Nadu and home to five million people, was not immediately at risk but the cyclone could move up the coast before heading inland, he added.
Local authorities said they were preparing helicopters and boats for any emergency. Existing cyclone shelters, schools and community halls have also been identified to serve as potential relief camps.
Many shops, government offices and private companies closed early to allow people to travel home before the cyclone struck.
Neighbouring Sri Lanka on Tuesday allowed thousands of people who had been evacuated to return to their homes after the storm, which had been expected to hit the island, changed course and moved towards India.
The last cyclone in India struck in the same southeast region in January, claiming 42 lives and leaving a trail of destruction across Tamil Nadu.
India and Bangladesh are hit regularly by cyclones that develop in the Bay of Bengal between April and November, causing widespread damage to homes, livestock and crops.
Andhra Pradesh saw its worst cyclone in 1977 when more than 10,000 people were killed.