Mass evacuation saves Indian lives as cyclone leaves trail of destruction

Reuters

* Phailin kills at least 15

* Almost a million in shelters built after 1999 disaster

* Storm loses momentum as it heads inland

By Sruthi Gottipati and Jatindra Dash

GANJAM/BHUBANESWAR, India, Oct 13 (Reuters) - A massevacuation saved thousands of people from India's fiercestcyclone in 14 years, but aid workers warned a million would needhelp after their homes and livelihoods were destroyed.

Cyclone Phailin was expected to dissipate within 36 hours,losing momentum on Sunday as it headed inland after makinglandfall from the Bay of Bengal, bringing winds of more than 200kph (125 mph) that ripped apart tens of thousands of thatchedhuts, mangled power lines and tore down trees.

Authorities in the eastern state of Odisha said the deathtoll stood at 15 people, all killed as the storm slammed in fromthe ocean. Most died under falling trees and one was crushedwhen the walls of her mud hut fell in.

The low number of casualties stands in contrast to the10,000 killed by Odisha's last big cyclone in 1999.

The building of hundreds of shelters since, warnings whichstarted five days before the storm and mass evacuations - oftenby force - minimised loss of life, aid officials said.

Almost a million people in Odisha (formerly Orissa) stateand adjacent Andhra Pradesh spent the night in shelters, someafter wading though surging rivers to higher ground. Otherssought safety in schools or temples.

"The loss of life has been contained this time with earlyinformation and speedy action of government," said SandeepChachra, executive director of ActionAid India.

Indian media commentators were effusive in praise for theevacuation operation and for accurate forecasting by India's Metoffice. Before the storm, some foreign forecasters had warnedthat India was underestimating its strength.

Authorities cancelled the holidays of civil servants duringthe popular Hindu Dussehra festival, deployed disaster responseteams with heavy equipment as well as helicopters and boats forrescue and relief operations.

Over the years, organisations like the Red Cross havemobilised thousands of volunteers across the cyclone-proneregion, who are not only trained in basic first aid but alsohelp with evacuations and relief distribution.

Drills are organised so people know what to do when an alertis issued, locking up their homes, leaving cattle in safe placesand taking only a few clothes and important documents with them.

"The 1999 cyclone was a real wake-up call for India. It wasat a time when economic growth was high and India was seen asdeveloping rapidly. It was embarrassing to be seen to be nottaking care of their people, even with all this development,"said Unni Krishnan, head of disaster response for children'scharity Plan International.

The death of at least 89 worshippers at a temple celebratingDussehra in central India on Sunday was areminder that disasters with many casualties remain common. InJuly floods and landslides killed nearly 6,000 people in India'sHimalayan foothills.

DESTRUCTION

Phailin left a trail of destruction along the coast,overturning cars and large trucks. Storm surges from the seasubmerged farmland near the coast, while heavy rain floodedtowns inland.

Along the highway through Ganjam district in Odisha, thecountryside was ravaged. An electricity tower lay in a mangledheap, poles were dislodged, lines tangled and power was out inmuch of the state. In villages, cranes lifted trees off crushedhouses.

A barber shop was tilted to one side. The students' commonroom at Berhampur University was a gaping hole, its facadeknocked out by the cyclone.

"The wind was so strong I couldn't get out of here," GandhiBehera, a cook in a nearby snack shop said.

The Indian Red Cross said its initial assessments showedthat over 235,000 mud-and-thatch homes owned by poor fishing andfarming communities had been destroyed in Ganjam district alone.It expects thousands of people to need help in coming days.

Plan International said it was concerned about the healthand sanitation needs of close to a million people and the impactof the storm on people's livelihoods.

"They cannot stay in the shelters for long as they areovercrowded and sanitation issues will crop up with the spreadof diseases such as diarrhoea and dysentery, especially amongstyoung children," Mangla Mohanty, head of the Indian Red Cross inOdisha, said by phone from Ganjam district.

In some parts of the state, people were making their waythrough destroyed farmland toward their broken homes. Dozenscrammed onto mini-trucks and others trudged with sacks ofbelongings. Mothers carried babies in their arms.

"There are no farms left. Everything has disappeared intothe water," said S. Dillirao, a paddy farmer, as he stood on hisinundated land.

Seawater had swept into his fields. "There's no way a singlecrop will grow here now," he said.

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