Cyclone Phailin: Recovery begins after giant storm surges across Indian coast, forcing 600,000 from their homes

Cyclone finally makes landfall in the state of Orissa, killing only seven as officials hail successful evacuation of 600,000

Asia Correspondent

The operation has begun to clear up a vast area of wreckage, collapsed buildings and fallen trees left in the wake of India’s Cyclone Phailin.

Officials said that only seven people were confirmed dead – a remarkably low toll given the tens of thousands of homes that were destroyed and comparisons with the 1999 storm that killed 10,000.

Phailin was the strongest system to hit India in more than a decade, yet an evacuation effort that moved 600,000 to safety seemed to have been largely successful at avoiding fatalities.

“Damage to property is extensive,” said Amitabh Thakur, the chief of police in the Orissa district that was worst-hit by the cyclone. “But few lives have been lost,” he said.

The category four storm hit the eastern coast of India at around 8pm on Saturday night, with a surge of sea water which The Times of India reported to be more than 3m (9ft) high. While this is traditionally feared as the real killer when a cyclone strikes, winds of up to 200km/h (125mph) continued to wreak havoc as the storm moved inland.

Today a weather official in Orissa, Sharat Sahu, told reporters: “Its intensity is still strong, but after crossing the coast it has weakened considerably.”

The brunt of the storm washed away many thousands of mud and thatch homes, but with some areas predicted to face another 24 hours of heavy rain it will be some time before efforts to rebuild can begin in earnest.

Earlier a state of high alert had been declared in the state, and in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh.

Reuters reported that even before landfall, coconut trees in villages along the coast were bent and broken as the gusting wind built up. Electrical poles were brought down and roads were littered with debris.

In the first reported deaths, two people were killed by falling trees while a third died when the walls of her mud house collapsed.

Police said a rescue had been launched for 18 fishermen stranded at sea off Paradip, a major port in Orissa, after their trawler ran out of fuel.

Terrified children clung to their mothers as they sought shelter. Most towns along the coast were deserted but there were still some people trying to flee.

In the days leading up to the arrival of the storm, the state authorities had been moving people to government shelters, school buildings and temples. In everybody's mind was the storm that hit in 1999 killing up to 10,000 people and leaving widespread criticism that officials had not been prepared for what happened.

“This is one of the largest evacuations undertaken in India,” Shashidhar Reddy, vice chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority, said of the effort to prepare for Phailin.

Speaking to the media in Delhi, he said the size of the storm - at one point it was reckoned to be half the size of India - made it likely that damage would be extensive. “Our priority is to minimise loss of life,” he said.

Many of the people along the coast are subsistence fishermen and farmers, who live in mud-and-brick or thatched huts.

Eric Holthaus, a US meteorologist, said most deaths in a cyclone were caused by the storm damage and extra rainfall. In 1999, a so-called 'super typhoon' battered the same region, killing 10,000 people.

India's disaster preparations have improved significantly since then and aid workers praised precautions for Phailin such as early warnings, stocking of rations in shelters and evacuations. “Hopefully, there will not be the same number of casualties,” Mr Holthaus had told The Independent.

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