NEW DELHI, May 3, 2019, SCMP. Two people died on Friday after Cyclone Fani slammed into eastern India, officials said, as the storm sent coconut trees flying, blew away food stands and cut off power and water. The monster weather system, which made landfall at the eastern city of Puri in the morning, is one of the strongest to come in off the Indian Ocean in years, with winds gusting at speeds of up to 200 kilometres (125 miles) per hour, reported the South China Morning Post.
In recent days authorities in Orissa state, where 10,000 people died in a 1999 cyclone, have evacuated more than a million people as they fret about a possible 1.5-metre (five-foot) storm surge sweeping far inland.
One man died of a heart attack in one of several thousand shelters that have been set up.
“Another person went out in the storm despite our warnings and died because a tree fell on him,” Orissa special relief commissioner Bishnupada Sethi said.
“The winds outside right now must be around 200kph,” he said by phone from Orissa state capital Bhubaneswar.
Hundreds of thousands more people in West Bengal state have also been given orders to flee. Local airports have been shut, while train queues and roads were closed.
“It just went dark and then suddenly we could barely see five metres in front of us,” said one Puri resident.
“There were the roadside food carts, store signs all flying by in the air,” the man said from a hotel where he took shelter. “The wind is deafening.”
Another witness said he saw a small car being pushed along a street by the winds and then turned over.
“We have been unable to make contact with our team in Puri for some time now to get the latest update about the situation there,” said, H.R. Biswas, Indian Meteorology Department director in Bhubaneswar.
Fani was expected to barrel north-eastward into West Bengal and towards Bangladesh, on a trajectory that will take it over the homes of 100 million people.
Authorities in West Bengal have started evacuating thousands of people from coastal villages, disaster management minister Javed Ahmed Khan said.
“We are bracing for the worst on Saturday when the cyclone is forecast to batter the city of Kolkata,” said Khan.
“We are monitoring the situation 24X7 and doing all it takes … Be alert, take care and stay safe for the next two days,” West Bengal’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee tweeted.
Meteorologists have warned of the “total destruction” of thatched houses, the uprooting of power and communication poles, the “flooding of escape routes” and damage to crops in some areas.
Some 3,000 shelters in schools and government buildings were set up to accommodate more than a million people in Orissa, with families including women and babies huddled on the floor.
Ports have been closed but the Indian Navy has sent six warships to the region while India’s biggest oil and gas producer ONGC evacuated almost 500 workers from offshore rigs.
Measures were also being taken to protect the 850-year-old Jagannath temple in Puri, a holy town normally thronging with pilgrims.
Electricity and water supplies were already cut for much of the city of 200,000 people. Metal shutters covered store fronts and sand blew up the streets from the nearby beach.
Only a few police vehicles and tractors trying to pull trees or push aside collapsed walls could be seen.
Media reports said hundreds of trees were uprooted at the nearby Chilika Lake just south of Puri in the first violent winds.
“We will just stay for the day until the cyclone has passed. We are not scared but we feel safer here,” said Krishna Chandra Sahu, sheltering with seven members of his family in a hotel.
In Bangladesh, disaster management chief Mohammad Hashim said that more than 4,000 cyclone shelters have been opened.
Aid agencies warned that the more than 1 million Rohingya living at refugee camps near the coastal district of Cox’s Bazar were at threat. Hillol Sobhan, local communications director for the aid group Care, said it had emergency supplies for the refugees in Cox’s Bazar.
The Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority said it suspended operations of all vessels.
Authorities also halted activities at Chittagong Seaport, which handles 80 per cent of the country’s overseas trade.
India’s east coast is vulnerable to destructive storms.
In 2017, Cyclone Ockhi left nearly 250 people dead and more than 600 missing in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
Additional reporting by Associated Press