Cyclone brings destruction to India, then weakens

Officials expect that 12 million people will be affected

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BEHRAMPUR, India — An immense, powerful cyclone that lashed the Indian coast, forcing 500,000 people to evacuate and causing widespread damage, weakened today after making landfall.

Five people died in rains that fell ahead of the storm, most killed by falling branches, Indian media reported, but the situation on the ground in many areas was still unclear after Cyclone Phailin slammed into the coast Saturday evening in Orissa state, where power and communications lines were down along much of the coastline.

The storm, the strongest to hit India in more than a decade, washed away tens of thousands of thatched-roof mud huts. It slowed significantly overnight, but meteorologists were calling for heavy rains across the state.

“Its intensity is still strong, but after crossing the coast it has weakened considerably,” said Sharat Sahu, a top official with the Indian Meteorological Department in Orissa.

Storms typically lose much of their force when they hit land.

With some of the world’s warmest waters, the Indian Ocean is considered a cyclone hot spot, and some of the deadliest storms in recent history have come through the Bay of Bengal, including a 1999 cyclone that also hit Orissa and killed 10,000 people.

U.S. forecasters had repeatedly warned that Phailin would be immense, and as the cyclone swept across the Bay of Bengal toward the Indian coast Saturday, satellite images showed its spinning tails covering an area larger than France.

On Saturday, seawater pushed inland along the Orissa coast, swamping villages where many people survive as subsistence farmers.In Behrampur, about 7 miles inland from where the eye of the cyclone struck, the sky blackened quickly around the time of landfall, with heavy winds and rains pelting the empty streets.

Window panes shook and shattered. Outside, wind-blown objects could be heard smashing into walls.

“My parents have been calling me regularly … they are worried,” said Hemant Pati, 27, who was holed up in a Behrampur hotel.

By Saturday evening, more than 500,000 people had been moved to higher ground or shelters in Orissa, and 100,000 more in neighboring Andhra Pradesh, officials said.

L.S. Rathore, the head of the Indian Meteorological Department, predicted a storm surge of 10-11.5 feet, but several U.S. experts had predicted that a much higher wall of water would blast ashore. Meteorologist Ryan Maue of the private U.S. firm Weather Bell predicted that, even in the best-case scenario, there would be a surge of 20-30 feet. The height of the surge, though, remained unclear this morning.

A storm surge is the big killer in such storms, though heavy rains are likely to compound the destruction. The Indian government said some 12 million people would be affected by the storm, millions of them living far from the coast.

The 1999 cyclone — similar in strength to Phailin but covering a smaller area — threw out a 19-foot storm surge.