'Red alert' as Massive Cyclone Bears Down on India

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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 nearly half a million people.

Cyclone Phailin was packing gusts of up to 240 kilometers per hour (150 miles per hour) and risked being the most powerful storm to hit the area since 1999 when more than 8,000 died.

"The very severe cyclonic storm Phailin is moving menacingly towards the coast," special relief commissioner for the state of Orissa Pradipta Mohapatra told Agence France Presse as the cyclone moved to within 150 kilometers (90 miles) of landfall.

Authorities said they expected a three-meter (10-foot) storm surge when the eye of the cyclone strikes in the early evening (around 1230 GMT) with heavy rainfall also threatening to flood low-lying coastal areas.

Heavy waves were already pounding the coast and trees were bent double by powerful winds on Saturday afternoon. Panicked local residents stockpiled food, stripping many shops bare.

"I've got faint memories of the 1999 super cyclone," 23-year-old student engineer Apurva Abhijeeta told AFP from the coastal town of Puri, 70 kilometres from state capital Bhubaneswar.

"I dread this Phailin. It's as if the world is coming to an end."

An AFP correspondent on the last flight to arrive at Bhubaneswar before the airport was closed described how the plane aborted the first attempted landing as the rain pounded the tarmac.

In Visakhapatnam on the coast of neighboring Andhra Pradesh state, south of the direct impact zone, fishermen frantically worked to secure their boats while other locals stood admiring the rough surf.

"This boat cost 400,000 rupees ($6,500). I don't want to lose it," 60-year-old fisherman Tonka Rao told AFP as he worked.

At least 440,000 people have been evacuated from the coastal areas of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, many of them taking their belongings and hunkering down in cramped shelters, said the National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA).

In the coastal town of Gopalpur, which is expected to be one of the worst affected areas, women and children packed into shelters, schools and public buildings where they lay on mats on bare floors.

NDMA vice-chairman, Marri Shashidhar Reddy, told a news conference it was one of the biggest evacuations in India's history which had been aided by improved early warning systems.

"We will be on a war footing," he said.

Authorities were still rushing to get people out of the storm's path, even those who were reluctant to move.

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

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, fresh from helping evacuate thousands from floods in the Himalayas in June, was also on standby.

While the storm is still technically one notch below the most powerful category of "super cyclone", the India Meteorological Department sounded its highest "red alert" on Saturday morning.

Some foreign forecasters believe Phailin, which means "Sapphire" in Thai, is more intense than Indian experts are predicting.

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

Satellite photos showed an intimidating cloud mass that filled a large part of the Bay of Bengal where less intense cyclones are frequent at this time of year when sea temperatures are at their highest.

It is set to strike the same coastal area that was hit badly in 1999, a region mostly populated with fishermen and small-scale farmers who live in flimsy huts with thatched roofs or shanties.

Weather officials have 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.

That storm had higher wind speeds and a larger storm surge -- six meters -- than being 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.

A government report on the 1999 disaster put the death toll at 8,243 and said 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.

Some of the most deadly storms in history have formed in the Bay of Bengal, including one in 1970 that killed hundreds of thousands of people in Bangladesh.

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