BHUBANESHWAR, India (AP) - Officials ordered tens of thousands of coastal villagers to flee their homes Friday as a massive cyclone - so large it filled nearly the entire Bay of Bengal - gathered strength and headed toward India's eastern seaboard.
Officials canceled holy day celebrations and stockpiled emergency supplies in coastal Orissa and Andhra Pradesh states, with forecasters saying Cyclone Phailin will hit the region Saturday evening.
The Indian Meteorological Department warned that Phailin was a "very severe cyclonic storm" that was expected to hit with maximum sustained winds of 165 mph per hour (equivalent of a strong cat. 5 hurricane in the Atlantic). If the storm continues on its current path without weakening, it is expected to cause large-scale power and communications outages and shut down road and rail links, officials said. There would also be extensive damage to crops.
Satellite images of the storm showed its spinning tails reaching nearly 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) from the east coast of India to the west coast of Myanmar, an area roughly the size of France.
Using trucks and buses, authorities evacuated 40,000 people from 40 villages to government-run shelters, schools and buildings in five districts of Orissa state, said Surya Narayan Patra, the state revenue and disaster management minister.
Patra said authorities plan to take another 100,000 people to safer areas before the cyclone hits.
"No one will be allowed to stay in mud and thatched houses in the coastal areas," he said.
Authorities also began evacuating 64,000 people from the low-lying areas of three vulnerable districts in neighboring Andhra Pradesh state, said state Revenue Minister N. Raghuveera Reddy.
Officials have been stockpiling emergency food supplies, and setting up shelters for people expected to flee the heavy winds and rains. The Indian air force said four transport planes and 18 helicopters were being kept ready for relief operations in the region.
Weather forecasters had been predicting waves up to 2 meters (7 feet), but warned that the storm has been gaining strength and its impact could be severe.
The Bay of Bengal has been the scene of the some of the deadliest storms in recent history. A 1999 Orissa cyclone killed 10,000 people.
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