BEHRAMPUR, India — 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 midafternoon, 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 Sunday.
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.
“My parents have been calling me regularly … they are worried,” said Hemant Pati, 27, who was holed up in a Behrampur hotel with 15 other people from the coastal town hit first by the storm.
The hotel manager said he would bar the doors against anyone trying to enter, saying there would be food, water and electricity from generators only for guests of the Hotel Jyoti Residency. “Nobody can come inside, and nobody can go out,” Shaik Nisaruddin said.
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 222 kilometers per hour (138 miles per hour), with gusts up to 268 kph (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.
He also said coasts would not be alone in suffering heavy damage. “This is a remarkably strong storm. It’s going to carry hurricane-force winds inland for about 12 hours, which is quite unusual,” Masters said.
Hurricanes typically lose much of their force when they hit land, where there is less heat-trapping moisture feeding energy into the storm.
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.
L.S. Rathore, the head of the Indian Meteorological Department, predicted a storm surge of 10-11.5 feet, but several U.S. experts had predicted a much higher wall of water would blast ashore. Meteorologist Ryan Maue of the private U.S. weather firm Weather Bell said that, even in the best-case scenario, there would be a surge of 20-30 feet.
A storm surge is the big killer in such storms, though heavy rains are likely to compound the destruction. The Indian government said some 12 million people would be affected by the storm, including millions living far from the coast.
There were few reports coming out of Orissa in the first hours after the storm’s landfall.
The 1999 cyclone — similar in strength to Phailin but covering a smaller area — threw out a 19.4-foot storm surge.