A massive, powerful cyclone packing heavy rains and destructive winds slammed into India’s eastern coastline Saturday evening, as hundreds of thousands of residents moved inland to shelters in hopes of riding 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 mid- afternoon, wind gusts were so strong that they could blow over grown men. Seawater pushed 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 near Gopalpur.
With some of the world’s warmest waters, the Indian Ocean is considered a cyclone hot spot, and some of the deadliest storms in recent history have come through the Bay of Bengal, including a 1999 cyclone that also hit Orissa and killed 10,000 people.
Officials said early reports of deaths from Phailin won’t become clear until after daybreak today.
In Behrampur, a town about 7 miles inland from where the eye of the storm hit, the sky blackened quickly around the time of landfall, with heavy winds and rains pelting the empty streets.
Window panes shook and shattered against the wind. Outside, objects could be heard smashing into walls.
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 138 miles per hour, with gusts up to 167 mph.
The storm, though, remained exceedingly strong and dangerous.
A few hours before it hit land, the eye of the storm collapsed, spreading the hurricane-force winds out over a larger area and giving it a “bigger damage footprint,” said Jeff Masters, meteorology director at the U.S.-based private Weather Underground.