NEW DELHI — A gigantic cyclone, one of the strongest ever to hit the Bay of Bengal, pounded India's eastern cost with heavy winds and rain Saturday, as more than half a million people fled the region.
The Indian government reported three people died as hundreds of trees were uprooted before the eye of the storm even made landfall early evening local time. Flights, trains and shipping operations were canceled and power shut down in six districts in the coastal area.
The India Meteorological Department said the cyclone made landfall near Gopalpur, India, with sustained winds of 124 mph — equivalent to a Category 3 hurricane.
Cyclone Phailin caused one of the largest evacuation operations in Indian history, with 600,000 people moved to higher ground in the coastal state of Odisha, which is expected to bear the brunt of the storm.
Electricity had been cut off in the entire state as a precaution, said Indian navy retired commodore A.K Patnaik, in Bhubaneshwar, the capital of Odisha, who was reached by phone before he shut it down to conserve power.
"It has been raining very heavily here since yesterday, the streets are flooded, and electricity was shut down this morning," he said. "The streets are empty, everyone is indoors, and people stocked up on groceries and essentials yesterday."
Satellite images showed the cyclone filling nearly the entire Bay of Bengal, an area larger than France that has seen the majority of the world's worst recorded storms, including a 1999 cyclone that killed 10,000.
"The storm has the potential to cause huge damage," L.S. Rathore, director-general of the Indian Meteorlogical Department told reporters.
The epicenter of the cyclone is likely to be close to the major port of Paradip in Odisha.
"We have stopped all cargo operations," Paradip Port Trust Chairman Sudhanshu Shekhara Mishra told the Press Trust of India (PTI), a local news agency. "We have set up control rooms and are ready with a contingency plan. We have cleared all vessels. People have been evacuated from low-lying areas."
The state has created 800 shelters as government workers and volunteers put together food packages for relief camps.
"I don't want people to panic," said Naveen Patnaik, chief minister of Odisha told PTI, calling for everyone to do their part in helping relief operations.
Still, some didn't want to leave their mud-and-thatch homes, particularly vulnerable to the storm.
"We will get over the storm," said Seetha Reddy, a fisher in Gopalpur who was reluctant to leave her house but was forced by the police to shift to a shelter, told the Hindustan Times.
More than 60,000 people from the low-lying areas of neighboring Andhra Pradesh state had been evacuated. The sea has already pushed inland as much as 130 feet in parts of that state, officials said.
Some locals were at a loss.
"I wanted to go back (home), but I have no money," Dinga Ram, a laborer working at the port and who is from a state hundreds of miles north of it, told the Hindustan Times. "I do not know what to do."