BHUBANESWAR — Indian and Bangladesh authorities raced on Friday to complete the evacuation of more than one million people out of the path of an extreme cyclone heading towards the Bay of Bengal coast with winds of up to 200 kilometres per hour.
Major airports were closed in India's eastern states of Odisha and West Bengal and the railway network virtually closed down ahead of the arrival of Extremely Severe Cyclone Fani – expected to be the biggest storm to hit the region in more than two decades – on Friday morning.
More than one million people in the two states have been ordered to leave their homes and the Bangladesh government separately issued evacuation orders for 19 coastal districts and put the army on standby.
The Indian meteorological department is predicting Fani will hit the coast near the Hindu holy city of Puri by about 0400 GMT in Odisha and then sweep up into West Bengal and reach Bangladesh on Saturday, gradually weakening.
It said a storm surge of about 1.5 metres could hit Odisha and flood low-lying areas where in 1999 10,000 people were killed by a cyclone.
A state relief department official said 780,000 people were moved to safer ground by Thursday.
Bishnupada Sethi, special relief commissioner for Odisha, which has a population of 45 million in all, said one million people would have to be moved by the time the storm hits.
Hundreds of thousands more in West Bengal have also been given evacuation orders. Special teams went through holiday villages urging tourists to move to safety.
"We have heard that the cyclone has turned towards Bengal and it will also hit Kolkata. But people should not panic unnecessarily. All precautionary steps are being taken to prevent any loss of life," Kolkata mayor Firhad Hakim told reporters.
Some 3,000 shelters in schools and government buildings have been set up to accommodate more than a million people in Odisha. More than 100,000 dry food packets are ready to be dropped if needed, reports said.
On Thursday the storm was brewing in the Bay of Bengal and moving ominously northeast towards land.
It was predicted to pack sustained wind speeds of 180-190 kph and gusts up to 200 kph, equivalent in strength to a Category 3 to 4 hurricane.
More than 200 train services have been cancelled along coastal routes, according to Indian Railways. Three special trains were running however from Puri to evacuate pilgrims and tourists.
Flights have been cancelled in and out of Odisha's capital Bhubaneswar and Kolkata in West Bengal until at least Saturday.
Heavy rain was already falling when hotels, schools and government offices started closing. At one Puri hotel visited by AFP all 175 rooms were ordered emptied, causing a wedding party to be cut short.
Measures were also being taken to protect the eight and a half century old Jagannath temple in the city.
Dozens of officials made announcements on megaphones across the coastal belt telling residents to flee their homes. State authorities also sent out mass SMS text messages to residents.
Ports have been closed but the Indian Navy has sent six warships to the region while India's biggest oil and gas producer ONGC evacuated almost 500 workers from offshore rigs.
"Heavy rains are expected in all the coastal districts amid fears of flash floods. We are all geared up for the challenge," said Sethi.
Forecasters have warned of the "total destruction" of thatched houses, the uprooting of power and communication poles, the "flooding of escape routes" and damage to crops in some areas.
Bangladesh disaster management chief Mohammad Hashim said that more than 4,000 cyclone shelters have been opened in 19 coastal districts.
Fani is the fourth major storm to slam into India's east coast in three decades, the last in 2017 when Cyclone Ockhi left nearly 250 people dead and more than 600 missing in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
The worst cyclone on record in Odisha, in 1999, killed almost 10,000 people and caused an estimated US$4.5 billion worth of devastation.
"I am not scared," said Loknath, 24, who works in a bookshop in Cottack in Odisha. "I am accustomed to such types of situation... Nothing will happen except rain and wind." AFP