BHUBANESWAR, India - India evacuated more than half a million people as massive Cyclone Phailin closed in on the impoverished east coast Saturday, with winds 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.
Authorities said they expected a three-metre (10-foot) storm surge when the eye of the cyclone strikes around 8:00 pm (1430 GMT), with torrential rain also threatening floods in low-lying areas in the states of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh.
"I dread this Phailin. It's as if the world is coming to an end," 23-year-old student engineer Apurva Abhijeeta told AFP from the coastal town of Puri, 70 kilometres from Orissa's state capital Bhubaneswar.
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.
"Everyone's in trouble so I've kept my shop open to help them," said shopkeeper Susil Kumar Singh, the owner of one of the few stores still operating in Bhubaneswar.
"The storm's going to get really heavy soon. Right now, there's no drinking water and trees are falling down all around."
Further south in Visakhapatnam, fishermen frantically sought to secure their boats while farmers tethered their livestock in the afternoon. Others admired the rough surf as wave after wave crashed into the shore.
Large boats could be seen anchored out at sea, while the biggest port in Orissa, 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.