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India cyclone kills at least 33

Hundreds of thousands homeless

A woman cooks a meal outdoors after her house was damaged by Cyclone Fani in the Penthakata fishing village of Puri, in the eastern Indian state of Orissa on May 4. A mammoth preparation exercise that included the evacuation of more than 1 million people appears to have spared India a devastating death toll from one of the biggest storms in decades, though the full extent of the damage was yet to be known, officials said Saturday. (AP)

PURI, India, May 5, (RTRS): Hundreds of thousands of people were left homeless after a cyclone packing winds of about 200 km per hour slammed into eastern India, ripping out tin roofs and destroying power and telecom lines, officials said on Sunday. At least 33 people were killed after cyclone Fani struck the state of Odisha on Friday but a million people emerged unscathed after they moved into storm shelter ahead of landfall.

The death toll could have been much greater if not for the massive evacuation in the days before the storm made landfall, officials said. The seaside temple town of Puri, which lay directly in the path of Fani, suffered extensive damage as winds gusting up to 200 kph (124 mph) tore off tin roofs, snapped power lines, and uprooted trees on Friday.

“The cyclone has killed 21 people in Puri and about 300 people are injured,” Brajabandhu Dash, medical officer at Puri, told Reuters. Earlier, 12 deaths were reported from other parts of the state. The depression over the Western Meghalaya and adjoining Bangladesh has weakened, and will become insignificant in the next 24 hours, India’s met department said on Twitter early on Sunday. According to preliminary reports, Fani damaged power infrastructure worth more than 12 billion rupees ($173.7 million) and the authorities are trying to restore electricity supply for emergency services, another official said. More than 60,000 people including officials and volunteers were involved in relief operations, said Special Relief Commissioner Bishnupada Sethi, who monitored the evacuation. The relief effort used sirens, loudspeakers and sent more than 20 million mobile messages to the targeted people, he said.

The cyclone season in the Bay of Bengal can last from April to December, and storms can be deadly. In 1999, a super-cyclone battered the coast of Odisha for 30 hours, killing 10,000 people. Fani was the strongest summer cyclone in 43 years to hit Odisha, disrupting water supplies and transport links, the state’s chief minister Naveen Patnaik said in a statement. “We are in the process of restoring physical infrastructure,” he told reporters.

Relief agencies were trying to provide food and medicine to victims in other parts of the state, while hundreds of thousands were still not accessible due to roadblocks and disruption in the communication network, officials said. The town of Puri was littered with tree branches, the debris of damaged houses and broken glass. Relief teams were trying to clear the roads. “There was no wind at night (before landfall). We thought nothing will happen,” P. Chittmma, 45, told Reuters while laying on a bed at a government hospital, showing her fractured leg.

Indian media reported on Saturday that at least 12 people had died across the state, with most deaths caused by falling trees, but a mass evacuation before the tropical cyclone made landfall averted a greater loss of life. The seaside temple town of Puri, which lay directly in the path of Fani, suffered extensive damage as winds gusting up to 200 kph (124 mph) tore off tin roofs, snapped power lines, and uprooted trees on Friday.

“Destruction is unimaginable… Puri is devastated,” Sethi told Reuters, adding that 116 people were reported injured across the state. Video footage taken from an Indian navy aircraft showed extensive flooding in areas around Puri, with wide swathes of land submerged in the aftermath of the storm. Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik said the electricity infrastructure in Puri and parts of an adjoining district had been completely devastated. “We have the challenge of having to set up the entire electrification afresh,” he told reporters. At least six people died in Bhubaneswar, Odisha’s state capital, where fallen trees blocked roads and electricity supply was hit. Ashok Patnaik, director of Capital Hospital, one of the largest state-run hospitals in Bhubaneswar, said it had received four dead bodies on Friday and two on Saturday. “All are cyclone related,” he said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is in the midst of a general election, said in a tweet that he would visit Odisha on Monday. Since then, technological advances have helped weather forecasters track the cyclones more accurately, giving authorities more time to prepare, and a mass evacuation of nearly a million people saved thousands of lives in 2013. This time, as cyclone Fani approached, Odisha moved 1.2 million people to safety in 24 hours, which Patnaik described as “one of the biggest human evacuations in history”.

Shelters were set up in schools and other safe buildings to accommodate the evacuees, who included scores of tourists. More than 100,000 government officials, 45,000 volunteers, and 2,000 civil society groups were mobilised, and 9,000 shelters and 7,000 kitchens pressed into service, Patnaik said. “Instead of it being a tragedy of humongous proportions, we are in the process of restoring critical infrastructure,” he said.

Neighbouring West Bengal state escaped substantial damage, but authorities moved nearly 42,000 people to safer locations. “Electricity has been restored in most places. In the next two days, the situation will be normal,” West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said in a statement. About 1.2 million people living in the most vulnerable districts in Bangladesh had also been moved to some 4,000 shelters.

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