GOPALPUR, India - Hundreds of thousands of people who fled India's strongest cyclone in 14 years returned home to scenes of devastation Monday, as survivors stranded at sea during the storms were finally rescued.
As a massive relief operation kicked into gear, teams raced to restore power and other services after the cyclone struck India's eastern coast on Saturday, killing at least 22 people and leaving a trail of destruction.
Cyclone Phailin pounded the states of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh further south, bringing winds of more than 200 kilometres an hour (125 miles per hour), uprooting trees, overturning trucks, knocking out power lines and flooding farmland.
"The death toll from the cyclone in Orissa has now gone up from 17 to 21. The deaths are mostly due to falling walls and tree branches," Pradipta Kumar Mohapatra, the state's special relief commissioner, told AFP by phone. One person was also killed in Andhra Pradesh, officials said.
Casualties were minimised after one million people spent the night huddled in shelters, temples and schools during the ferocious storm, in what officials said was India's largest ever evacuation operation.
Indian President Pranab Mukherjee led a chorus of praise for the evacuation effort and the "high level of preparedness" as well as for the accurate forecasting of the country's weather bureaus.
Relief agencies said government officials seemed to have learnt the lessons from 1999, when a cyclone tore through the same region, killing more than 8,000 people and devastating crops and livestock.
"The government and the community were more aware this time and better prepared, it was a collective effort and a successful one," Manish Choudhary, a director of the Indian Red Cross Society, told AFP.
Officials in Orissa said 873,000 people moved before the cyclone made landfall on Saturday evening, while at least another 100,000 were evacuated in Andhra Pradesh. Residents were also evacuated from coastal regions of West Bengal state.
Many returned home on Monday to discover their homes, many flimsy mud and thatch dwellings, as well as their businesses damaged or destroyed. Mostly poor farmers and fishermen, they were resigned to getting on with the job of rebuilding rather than waiting for rescue workers.