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Half a million evacuated as cyclone lashes India


BHUBANESWAR, India (AFP) - India evacuated half a million people as massive Cyclone Phailin closed in on the impoverished east coast Saturday, with winds already uprooting trees and tearing into flimsy homes.

The storm packed gusts of up to 240 kilometres per hour (150 miles per hour) as it churned over the Bay of Bengal, making it potentially the most powerful cyclone to hit the area since 1999, when more than 8,000 died, the Indian weather office said.

"The very severe cyclonic storm Phailin is moving menacingly towards the coast," special relief commissioner for the state of Orissa, Pradipta Mohapatra told AFP.

Authorities said they expected a three-metre (10-foot) storm surge when the eye of the cyclone strikes after nightfall, with torrential rain also threatening floods in low-lying areas.

"I've got faint memories of the 1999 super cyclone," nervous 23-year-old student engineer Apurva Abhijeeta told AFP from the coastal town of Puri, 70 kilometres from state capital Bhubaneswar.

"I dread this Phailin. It's as if the world is coming to an end."

Heavy waves pounded the coast as terrified locals made their way to solid buildings, cramming into packed rickshaws and buses as they travelled. Relief efforts were under way, with free food being served in shelters.

Food stockpiling began earlier in the week as Phailin gathered strength dramatically, with many shops stripped bare before they closed on Saturday afternoon.

In Visakhapatnam, further south on the coast of neighbouring Andhra Pradesh state, fishermen frantically sought to secure their boats while others admired the rough surf.

Large boats could be seen anchored out at sea, while the biggest port in the affected area, in Paradip, has shut down.

An AFP correspondent on the last flight to arrive in Bhubaneswar before the airport shut described how the plane aborted the first attempted landing in shearing winds and pounding rain.

'On a war footing'

Officials put the number of people who have been evacuated from the coastal areas of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh at around half a million.

"Approximately half a million people have been evacuated so far, including 1 lakh (100,000) in Andhra Pradesh," National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) spokeswoman Tripti Parule told AFP.

Officials in the neighbouring state of West Bengal said hotels along the coast had been told to evacuate while Krishna Ram Pisda, the relief commissioner in Chhattisgarh state, said authorities would empty some of their dams into rivers to avert possible flooding.

Parule said the storm was expected to make landfall at about 8:00 pm (1430 GMT).

The agency's vice-chairman Marri Shashidhar Reddy told a news conference it was one of the biggest evacuations in India's history, and had been aided by improved early warning systems.

"We will be on a war footing," he said in New Delhi.

Authorities were still rushing to get people out of the storm's path, even those who were reluctant to move.

In the seaside town of Gopalpur, which is expected to be one of the worst affected areas, women and children were the first to pack into shelters, schools and public buildings, where they lay on mats.

The Indian Red Cross Society also had disaster response teams ready while the air force, fresh from helping evacuate thousands from floods in the Himalayas in June, flew in food and medical supplies to Bhubaneswar.

Sandeep Rai Rathore, inspector general of the army's National Disaster Response Force, said 1,200 of the unit's troops had been sent to Orissa and a further 500 to Andhra Pradesh.

While the storm is still technically one notch below the most powerful category of "super cyclone", the India Meteorological Department sounded its highest "red alert" on Saturday morning.

Some foreign forecasters believe Phailin, which means "Sapphire" in Thai, is more intense than Indian experts are predicting.

The US Navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Center said gusts could reach as high as 315 kilometres an hour.

12 dead, millions without power as typhoon hits Philippines


MANILA (AFP) - Typhoon Nari pummelled the northern Philippines early Saturday, ripping roofs off buildings, killing 12 people and leaving more than two million without power.

Nari slammed into the country's east coast around midnight (1600 GMT Friday), toppling trees and pylons as it cut a westward swathe through the farming regions of the main island of Luzon, officials said.

"While there were relatively few casualties, a lot of areas are still flooded," Eduardo del Rosario, head of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council told a news conference.

Witnesses in the coastal town of Baler, near where Nari made landfall, said many large trees had been felled and clean-up crews with chainsaws were clearing the roads.

Government clerk Glenn Diwa, 34, said she and her husband spent a sleepless as the typhoon roared through the town of Capas, 90 kilometres (55 miles) north of Manila.

"It started close to midnight and lasted three hours. The wind was very strong and there was a whistling sound. After a while we heard torn roofing sheets clattering across the yard," she told AFP.

As Nari moved inland, dumping rain, a wall of mud fell on a police barracks near the town of Magalang, killing an officer awaiting deployment to rescue typhoon victims, the civil defence office in the region said.

Elsewhere in central Luzon, an old woman and four minors were crushed to death when trees crashed onto two houses and a vehicle, while the wall of a school collapsed and crushed an old man to death.

Another man was electrocuted by a loose power line while yet another died of a heart attack in an incident that disaster officials also blamed on Nari.
Two children and an elderly person drowned in the province of Bulacan, which suffered widespread flooding, provincial governor Wilhelmino Alvarado told ABS-CBN television in an interview.

The network aired footage of earth-coloured floodwaters climbing above river defences and swamping farmland.

Soldiers, police, and local government workers used military trucks to rescue residents in flooded communities across the towns of San Miguel and Minalin, the regional civil defence office there said.

"The wind picked up very quickly, very dramatically. We had the wind coming right off the ocean for four hours," said one witness on the east coast.

Even as Nari blew out to the South China Sea Saturday, with peak winds of 120 kilometres (75 miles) an hour according to the state weather service, the danger had not passed.

A farmer and a woman on separate motorbikes were nearly swept away and had to be pulled back to safety by policemen when they tried to cross a street that had turned into a raging river.

Farmer Frankie Gracia, 30 said he had been forced to butcher one of his pigs after it fell ill from exposure to the rain and wanted to cross the streaming floodwaters to take some of the pork to his relatives.

"I needed to reach the other side soon, otherwise the meat would spoil," he said.

The typhoon blacked out 37 towns and cities across the region.
Road and utility crews were out clearing roads and restoring power, but it could take up to two days before electricity is restored and major highways are reopened to traffic, Nigel Lontoc, a disaster official for the region, told AFP by telephone.

A total of 2.1 million people live in the areas now without electricity.

Four people were listed as missing, including a fisherman on the country's east coast who had been sleeping in his boat that was swept out to sea.

Three other fishermen who put to sea elsewhere before the typhoon have also failed to return, officials said.

About 3,000 people moved into government-run shelters amid warnings their communities could be hit by flooding and landslides, Lontoc said.
The typhoon spared the capital Manila, where the state weather service had warned on Friday about possible widespread flooding.

Projections from the Hong Kong Observatory had the storm gathering pace over the coming days as it heads towards the northeast coast of Vietnam.

The Philippines is hit by about 20 major storms or typhoons each year that occur mainly between June and October.


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