Fierce cyclone rips into India; 550,000 flee to shelters


* Cyclone Phailin kills at least five so far

* Storm could affect 12 million

* Operations at port halted; major gas field spared

By Sruthi Gottipati and Jatindra Dash

ICHAPURAM/BHUBANESWAR, India, Oct 13 (Reuters) - A fiercecyclone tore into India's coast, killing at least five people,forcing half a million into shelters and threatening todevastate farmland and fishing hamlets.

Cyclone Phailin was expected to remain a "very severecyclonic storm", packing winds of up to 210 kph (130 mph), intoSunday before steadily weakening as it moves inland in thestates of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh.

The storm snapped trees and electricity poles and smashedwindows in Brahmapur, a town in the area where it hit land onSaturday evening.

Rescue workers and soldiers spread out across the region inhelicopters and trucks and the full extent of destruction wasonly expected to become clear after daybreak on Sunday.

Some 12 million people were in the path of Phailin, weatherand disaster management officials said. It was India's strongestcyclone since a typhoon killed 10,000 people in the same region14 years ago. Aid agencies hope better preparation and earlywarnings will mean far fewer casualties this time.

Satellite images showed a vast spiral-shaped storm coveringmost of the Bay of Bengal's warm seas, before it churned inland.

Jagdesh Dasari, a leader in the fishing village ofMogadhalupadu, said police ordered villagers to leave their mudand thatch huts for a school building as night fell. Many on theimpoverished coast were reluctant to go, afraid of losingbelongings.

"Many people refused to move, had to be convinced, and attimes the police had to forcefully move them to safe places,"Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde said.

In the first reported deaths, four people were killed byfalling trees, while another died when the walls of her mudhouse collapsed. Electricity went out in several towns,including Odisha's capital Bhubaneswar.

"We are fortunate that we are here ... we saved our lives,"said Narayan Haldar, huddled with 1,300 people in an Odishafishing village storm shelter, built after the 1999 typhoon.

But he complained the government had not provided food. Someshelters were dilapidated and TV images showed crowds standingin the rain outside one overcrowded building.

Large waves pounded beaches and villagers told a televisionstation that surging sea levels has pushed water hundreds offeet (metres) inland in low-lying areas.

Higher sea levels driven by storm surges can cause the worstdestruction. Phailin was forecast to drive sea levels up 11 feet(3.5 meters) at its peak.

"The biggest threat right now is the storm surge along thecoast," said Eric Holthaus, meteorologist for Quartz magazine.


India's disaster preparations have improved since the 1999storm and aid workers praised the precautions taken, such as thestocking of rations and evacuations.

Some 550,000 people were crammed into makeshift sheltersincluding schools and temples, in what the National DisasterManagement Authority called one of India's largest evacuations.

Even before landfall, coconut trees in villages along thecoast were bent and broken in the gusting wind. Electrical poleswere brought down and roads littered with debris.

Terrified children clung to their mothers as they soughtshelter. Most towns along the coast were deserted but somepeople were still trying to flee in buses and three-wheeledauto-rickshaws just hours before the storm struck.

The size of the storm made extensive damage to property more likely, Shashidhar Reddy, vice chairman of the NationalDisaster Management Authority told reporters in New Delhi. "Ourpriority is to minimise loss of life," he said.

The weather department warned mud houses faced destruction.It said the disruption of power and communication lines and theflooding of railways and roads was likely.

London-based Tropical Storm Risk said the storm lost somestrength before making landfall as Category 4 - the secondstrongest such rating. The U.S. Navy's weather service said windat sea was earlier gusting at 296 kph (184 mph).

"A lot has been learnt since 1999 and my guess is that whilethere could be extensive damage to property and crops, the deathtoll will be much less," said G. Padmanabhan, emergency analystat the U.N. Development Programme.

Despite the warnings, some refused to leave their homes.

"I have a small child, so I thought, how will I leave?"asked Achamma, 25, holding her son in Donkuru, a fishing villagein Andhra Pradesh, as waves crashed on the beach.

The port of Paradip halted operations on Friday. All vesselswere ordered to leave the port, which handles coal, crude oiland iron ore. An oil tanker carrying 2 million barrels of oil,worth $220 million, was moved, an oil company source said.

The storm landed far north of India's largest gas field, theD6 natural gas block in the Cauvery Basin further down the eastcoast, operated by Reliance Industries.

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