India was on a "war footing" last night as the most powerful cyclone in more than a decade hit its east coast, with wind, rain and waves battering the shore, prompting the evacuation of more than half a million people.
Trees were uprooted, homes were destroyed and the first deaths were reported even before the winds of Cyclone Phailin made landfall in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh states. As it swept through the Bay of Bengal, alerts were issued of destruction and flooding that would put 12 million people at risk. Last night, the Indian Meteorological Office recorded wind speeds of up to 125mph.
Emergency services prepared for the worst storm in 14 years while humanitarian agencies were on standby to begin delivering aid.
Two people died after being hit by falling trees in Bhubaneswar, the regional capital, while a woman died when a mud wall collapsed.
People needed little persuasion to leave their homes. In 1999 a powerful super-cyclone ripped through Orissa, killing more than 10,000 people. More than 1.5 million lost their homes, while 400,000 farm animals were killed and swathes of agricultural land was destroyed.
"I dread this Phailin. It's as if the world is coming to an end," said Apurva Abhijeeta, a 23-year-old engineering student, from the town of Puri.
The predicted path takes Phailin through more than 90 towns and 35,000 villages.
Terrified locals moved inland, cramming into rickshaws and buses as they sought higher ground. Others huddled in temples.
By yesterday, some 600,000 people had been moved to higher ground or shelters in Orissa, which is expected to bear the brunt of the cyclone, said Surya Narayan Patro, the state's top disaster management official.
Marri Shashidhar Reddy, the vice-chairman of the National Disaster Management Agency, said it was one of the biggest evacuations in India's history. "We will be on a war footing," he said in New Delhi.
The Indian meteorological department said Phailin would bring storm surges 10ft above normal tides with winds of 130-135mph, putting it one class down from the most powerful "super-cyclone".
The US navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Centre in Hawaii predicted winds of 167mph with gusts of up to almost 200mph.
"If it's not a record it's really, really close," said Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami. "You really don't get storms stronger than this anywhere in the world ever."