By SHONAL GANGULY
BEHRAMPUR, India (AP) — A massive, powerful cyclone was hammering India’s eastern coastline with heavy rains and destructive winds Saturday, as hundreds of thousands of people living in the region moved inland and took shelter, hoping to ride out the dangerous storm.
Roads were all but empty as high waves lashed the coastline of Orissa state, which will bear the brunt of Cyclone Phailin. By midafternoon, wind gusts were so strong that they could blow over grown men. Along the coast, seawater was pushing inland, swamping villages where many people survive as subsistence farmers in mud and thatch huts.
As the cyclone swept across the Bay of Bengal toward the Indian coast, satellite images showed its spinning tails covering an area larger than France. Images appeared to show the storm making landfall early Saturday night.
In Behrampur, a town about 7 miles inland from where the eye of the storm was expected to hit, the sky blackened quickly around the time of landfall, with heavy winds and rains pelting the empty streets.
Estimates of the storm’s power had dropped slightly, with the U.S. Navy’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Hawaii showing maximum sustained winds of about 150 mph, with gusts up to 184 mph.
The storm, though, remained exceedingly strong and dangerous. By Friday evening, some 420,000 people had been moved to higher ground or shelters in Orissa, and 100,000 more in neighboring Andhra Pradesh, said Indian Home Secretary Anil Goswami.
“A storm this large can’t peter out that fast,” said Ryan Maue, a meteorologist at Weather Bell, a private U.S. weather firm. “There’s nothing to stop it at this point.”
L.S. Rathore, the head of the Indian Meteorological Department, predicted a storm surge of 10 feet to 11.5 feet, but Maue said that even in the best-case scenario there would be a surge of 20 feet to 30 feet.
A storm surge — the giant wall of water that a cyclone blasts ashore — is the big killer in such storms.
Phailin already has been large and powerful for nearly 36 hours, he said, and those winds have built up a tremendous amount of surge.
A few hours before the storm was to hit Saturday evening, about 200 villagers were jammed into a two-room schoolhouse in the village of Subalaya, about 20 miles from the coast, where local emergency officials were distributing food and water. The roads were almost completely empty of traffic by Saturday afternoon, but two trucks pulled up to the school with more evacuees. Children shivered in the rain as they stepped down from the vehicles, following women carrying bags jammed with possessions.
Many of the people had fled low-lying villages for the shelter of the concrete school. But some had also left behind relatives who feared the storm could wipe out lifetimes of work.
“My son had to stay back with his wife because of the cattle and belongings,” said 70-year-old Kaushalya Jena, weeping in fear inside the makeshift shelter. “I don’t know if they are safe.”
In Bhubaneshwar, the Orissa state capital, government workers and volunteers were putting together hundreds of thousands of food packages to be distributed at relief camps.
The state’s top official, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, appealed for people to leave their homes if they are ordered.
“I request everyone to not panic. Please assist the government. Everyone from the village to the state headquarters have been put on alert,” he told reporters.
Surya Narayan Patro, the state’s top disaster management official, said tens of thousands of more people would be moved to safer areas before the cyclone hits. “No one will be allowed to stay in mud and thatched houses in the coastal areas,” he said.
The sea had already pushed inland as much as 130 feet along parts of the coastline by Saturday afternoon.
Officials in both Orissa and Andhra Pradesh have been stockpiling emergency food supplies and setting up shelters for evacuees. The Indian military has put some of its forces on alert, and has trucks, transport planes and helicopters at the ready for relief operations.
In Paradip, the Orissa port city hammered in a 1999 cyclone, at least seven ships were moved out to sea to ride out the storm, with other boats shifted to safer parts of the harbor, officials said.
The storm is expected to cause large-scale power and communications outages and shut down road and rail links, officials said. It’s also expected to cause extensive damage to crops.
U.S. forecasters repeatedly warned the storm would be immense.
“If it’s not a record, it’s really, really close,” University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy told The Associated Press. “You really don’t get storms stronger than this anywhere in the world ever. This is the top of the barrel.”
To compare it to killer U.S. storms, McNoldy said Phailin is nearly the size of Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,200 people in 2005 and caused devastating flooding in New Orleans. But Phailin also has the wind power of 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, which packed 165 mph winds at landfall in Miami.
The Indian government said some 12 million people would be affected by the storm, though that number included millions living far from the coast.
The Bay of Bengal has been the scene of some of the deadliest storms in recent history. The 1999 Orissa cyclone, which was similar in strength to Phailin, killed 10,000 people.
Associated Press writer Seth Borenstein contributed to this report from Washington.