INDIA'S east coast braced today for a cyclone covering half the size of the country, with tens of thousands of residents in low-lying areas fleeing their homes after authorities forecast a risk to life and extensive damage.
Satellite images showed Cyclone Phailin 600km off the coast in the Bay of Bengal and likely to make landfall tomorrow evening. The images showed the storm covering an area roughly half the size of India.
Some forecasters likened its size and intensity to that of hurricane Katrina, which devastated the US Gulf coast and New Orleans in 2005.
The Indian Meteorological Department described Phailin as a "very severe cyclonic storm" with wind speeds of 210-220km per hour and said it would hit between Kalingapatnam and the major port of Paradip in Odisha state. The US Navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Centre predicted gusts of up to 305kmh.
"We plan to evacuate about 100,000 families in Ganjam district by tomorrow morning," said Odisha state's Special Relief Commissioner, Pradeep Kumar Mohapatra.
State authorities said 5,000 families had already moved into shelters and schools. Shelters were being stocked with rations, and leave for government employees was cancelled.
The government broadcast cyclone warnings through loudspeakers and on radio and television as the first winds were felt on the coast and in the state capital, Bhubaneswar. People living in thatched houses in low-lying areas were told to move to cyclone shelters, high-rise buildings and other safer places.
Residents reported 3.5m waves, but fishermen hoped the storm would pass over and were reluctant to leave their boats.
Helicopters were on standby in neighbouring West Bengal, ready to drop food packets into isolated areas, officials said.
Indian authorities warned of extensive damage to crops, village dwellings and old buildings, as well as disruption of power, water and rail services.
"Within 12 hours of cyclone strike we will try to clear all the roads. Within 24 hours we will try to restore water supply and electricity." Mohapatra said.
Paradip stopped cargo operations today after the cyclone warning, port chairman Sudhanshu Shekhara Mishra said.
"There is no cargo operation. We are also not allowing berthing," Mishra said. He said all vessels were ordered to leave the port, which handles coal, crude oil and iron ore.
India's largest gas field - the Reliance Industries -operated D6 natural gas block - lies in the Cauvery Basin further down the east coast. The company said it was not expecting to be affected by the weather.
London-based storm tracking service Tropical Storm Risk placed Phailin in the most intense Category 5 of powerful storms, evoking memories of a devastating "super cyclone" that killed 10,000 people on India's east coast in 1999. That storm battered Odisha for 30 hours with wind speeds reaching 300kmh.
"A recent satellite estimate put Phailin's current intensity on par with 2005's Hurricane Katrina in the United States and just barely stronger than the 1999 cyclone at its peak," said Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist for Quartz magazine.
"That would mean Phailin could be the strongest cyclone ever measured in the Indian Ocean."
India's weather authorities were reluctant to make comparisons to the 1999 cyclone, and most forecasters expected it to weaken upon reaching the coast. Odisha's storm preparedness has improved since 1999.