Posted: Oct 12, 2013 5:33 PM by Laura Smith-Spark, Harmeet Shah Singh and Lonzo Cook - CNN
Bhubaneswar, India (CNN) -- People in eastern India were waiting for morning light to reveal the extent of devastation from Tropical Cyclone Phailin, which made landfall Saturday night with winds of 140 mph -- the strongest storm to hit India in 14 years.
The center of the storm crossed the coast around 9 p.m. (11:30 a.m. ET) in eastern Odisha state, along the Bay of Bengal, based on images from satellite and radar.
Hurricanes are known as cyclones in the Indian Ocean, and the wind speed made it equivalent to a Category 4 hurricane.
India evacuated more than a half-million people in advance of the storm, in the hopes of avoiding a repetition of what happened 1999, when a cyclone claimed 10,000 lives.
"We have taken a zero-casualty approach," said Odisha state disaster manager Kamal Lochan Mishra. "If people do not move, force will be used to evacuate them."
Phailin brought more than 2 inches of rain Saturday to parts of the coast, according to the India Meteorological Department. Some of the heaviest rain was falling Saturday night in Bhubaneswar, about 30 miles from the coast.
Several hours after the storm made landfall, there were heavy rains and winds in Odisha's capital of Bhubaneswar, CNN producer Lonzo Cook reported from the scene.
Forecasters expected a storm surge of as much as 20-23 feet (6-7 meters) in places, threatening densely populated areas that are vulnerable to flooding.
Residents were evacuated to safer places in Odisha and the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh states, national disaster-management authority chief Marri Shashidhar Reddy said.
Of them, more than 400,000 were moved to safety in Odisha alone, he told CNN.
There are conflicting reports about the death toll so far.
Odisha's director-general of police, Prakash Mishra, told CNN that two men and a woman were killed by trees brought down by heavy winds in the state. Local police in Odisha told CNN's sister network in India, CNN-IBN, that seven people had been killed by falling trees.
Many of those evacuated from low-lying coastal areas of Odisha left on foot or by bicycle, Kamal Lochan Mishra said.
They are being housed in nearly 250 emergency shelters set up in sturdy buildings like schools and government offices.
The Ganjam district of Odisha is expected to be the worst hit, with disaster preparedness efforts concentrated there, CNN-IBN reported.
In Gopalpur, a coastal resort town in Ganjam, restaurants were shuttered and streets deserted Saturday afternoon, as rain lashed down. Tourists as well as local resident have been asked to leave the town.
Power was out in coastal areas including Kalingapatnam, from where about 80,000 people have been evacuated to relief camps, CNN-IBN reported. Some fishermen earlier told the broadcaster they had defied the order to leave, anxious to see what happened on the shore.
Some fear a repeat of what happened on October 29, 1999, when Cyclone 05B, also known as the Odisha Cyclone, made landfall in the same area, killing 10,000 people. It was the strongest tropical cyclone recorded in the Bay of Bengal, with winds of 155 mph at landfall, and it caused more than $2 billion in damage.
Phailin's hurricane-force winds are expected to last until noon Sunday, and could extend several hundred kilometers inland as the storm moves into India.
In advance of the storm, military units and National Disaster Response Force personnel were deployed to coastal areas with relief supplies and medical aid, CNN-IBN said. More than 20 medical teams flew to the region.
Federal and state government ministers are being briefed on the situation, the cabinet secretary said.
All flights to Odisha have been canceled and train services in the state are also disrupted, CNN's sister network reported.
International humanitarian organization World Vision said it was helping local community groups prepare for the cyclone's arrival.
"In a storm of this magnitude there is the potential for widespread damage to crops and livestock in the low-lying coastal areas and houses completely wiped away," said Kunal Shah, the head of World Vision's emergency response in India. "So while we are praying this storm loses intensity, we're also preparing."
The organization has worked for the past several years to train local people in disaster preparedness, including search and rescue, basic first aid and how to protect livestock, and has thousands of emergency response kits ready to hand out where needed.
"We believe communities are better prepared than they were when the devastating cyclone hit in 1999," said Shah.
Rough seas, gales
Gale-force winds could whip coastal areas of Odisha and northern Andhra Pradesh for hours after landfall, the India Meteorological Department said.
The storm surge could inundate low-lying areas of both states, it said.
The department warned of extensive damage to kutcha houses, those made of flimsy materials such as mud and bamboo, as well as some damage to old buildings.
Power and communication lines are likely to suffer large-scale disruption. Extensive flooding will also disrupt rail and road traffic, and crops are likely to suffer major damage, it said.
People in affected areas may be at risk from flying debris, as well as the flooding of escape routes.
CNN's Lonzo Cook reported from Bhubaneswar and Harmeet Shah Singh from New Delhi and Laura Smith-Spark wrote and reported in London. CNN's Tom Sater and Ivan Cabrera contributed to this report.