ucanews.com reporter, BhubaneswarUpdated: October 12, 2013 01:00 AM GMT
Indian youth watch as high surf hits the coastline in Visakhapatnam, as Cyclone Phailin moved closer to landfall on Saturday and hundreds of thousands evacuated inland (AFP photo/Manan Vatsyayana)
A severe cyclone expected to hit eastern coastal India has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee villages and abandon preparations for the Hindu festival of Durga Puja, which celebrates the victory of good over evil.
The Indian Meteorological Department has predicted winds of 200-250 km at the time of landfall – expected to be Saturday evening – on Orissa coast, where a super-cyclone in 1999 killed more than 10,000 people.
In repsonse to the predictions, the Orissa government cancelled the festival holidays of all its employees in 14 districts and deployed Disaster Rapid Action Force members in all vulnerable areas that could be affected by Cyclone Phailin.
"It is a very severe cyclone with extremely heavy rainfall and winds,” Meteorological Department Director General LS Rathore told ucanews.com.
The cyclone is expected to hit the coastal states of Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and West Bengal, according to the Meteorological Department.
Rathore said that the authorities in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh states are in touch with his office "and they have started evacuating people."
He added that Cyclone Phailin was expected to linger on the coast and over inland areas for at least 24 hours before downgrading to a tropical storm.
According to local media reports, about 100,000 people in Orissa living in the coastal Ganjam district are being evacuated, while more than 300,000 more from other coastal areas are fleeing the approaching cyclone.
"We are already experiencing heavy winds here, and in some parts we have no electricity," Father Ajay Singh, a social activist based in the state capital Bhubaneswar, told ucanews.com on Friday.
He said government officials and volunteers are cooperating in the evacuation of people living within five kilometers of coastal areas to safer places.
"They are using radio, television and pubic address systems asking people to move off," he said.
After the 1999 cyclone, "the government has built several cyclone shelters, and it is now easier for people to move to those places", said Father Singh, who has been assisting in the evacuation.
Fr Singh added that despite the severity of Cyclone Phailin, casualties are expected to be low because of advanced warnings and better preparedness, though there could be other problems including hoarding of food and water, and price gauging.
“[The cyclone] has also dampened the spirit of Durga Puja, the most important festival in this part of the world,” Singh said.