India starts evacuations as cyclone hurtles toward coast

India starts evacuations as cyclone hurtles toward coast

NEW DELHI - India on Saturday began evacuating thousands of people from fishing villages as it braced for Cyclone Hudhud barrelling towards its east coast, officials said.

The states of Andhra Pradesh and Orissa in the southeast were on high alert for what the weather office described as a "very severe cyclonic storm" due to make landfall Sunday.

Many thousands from fishing villages across five districts in northeast Andhra Pradesh living in flimsy housing were among the first to be moved to safer, concrete relief shelters, officials said.

The numbers of evacuees were expected to swell.

"We are ready to evacuate 400,000 people, but that will depend on the amount of rainfall and how it affects low-lying areas," said Arvind Kumar, an senior official from Andhra Pradesh, overseeing the relief efforts.

Cyclone Hudhud was expected to pound the coast with winds of at least 190 kilometres (118 miles) an hour, accompanied by torrential rains, according to the Indian weather office.

The storm was expected to make landfall before lunchtime in Visakhapatnam, a city in northern Andhra Pradesh, state officials said.

"I would say that realistically about 150,000 people (in Andhra Pradesh) are likely to be affected," said Kumar, Authorities told fishermen to stay away from the choppy seas.

In neighbouring Orissa where Cyclone Phailin last October killed at least 18 and left a massive trail of destruction, authorities were more worried about torrential rains than gusting winds which were expected to lose speed by the time they hit the state later Sunday.

"We are expecting flash floods and heavy rainfall after the cyclone hits," said P.K. Mohapatra, special relief commissioner of Orissa, where more than 300,000 people in eight districts would feel the storm's force.

A few thousand had been moved to cyclone shelters with community kitchens and water supply.

The shifting of endangered Bonda tribals had also begun from their age-old habitats in the Bonda Hills in Orissa's Malkangiri district, which was expected to be hard hit by the storm.

But some among the tribal group which numbers a total of 7,000 were reluctant to move as they had never left the area, the Press Trust of India (PTI) said.

Orissa legislature member Dambaru Sisa, who belongs to the Bonda tribal community, told PTI he had been trying to convince the tribal group to leave for safer ground.

"Many of them are reluctant to leave their huts. The identified 2,000 tribal people (who must move) have never come down the hills in their lifetime," said Sisa.

Disaster response teams and defences forces are ready with manpower, rescue equipment and choppers to deal with the impact of the cyclone.

India's eastern coast and neighbouring Bangladesh are routinely hit by bad storms between April and November that cause deaths and widespread property damage.

In 1999, more than 8,000 people were killed when a cyclone battered Orissa.

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