GOPALPUR - Tens of thousands of people who fled India's strongest cyclone in 14 years returned to discover their homes and livelihoods destroyed Monday, as a massive relief operation kicked into gear.
One million people were forced to seek refuge in shelters and government buildings after the terrifying cyclone struck eastern India on Saturday, killing at least 18 people and leaving a trail of destruction along the coast.
Cyclone Phailin was dissipating rapidly after pounding the states of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, bringing winds of more than 200 kilometres an hour (125 miles per hour), uprooting trees, overturning trucks, and knocking out power lines.
Residents, some carrying their children and clutching bags of possessions, and who hours earlier were huddled in shelters, made their way back to their towns and villages fearing the worst.
"I left everything (behind) and when I came back nothing was here," said Bhagwan, 50, who uses one name, a coconut seller from the hard-hit Orissa town of Gopalpur, as he sat on the ground in front of his destroyed shop.
Some 600,000 people were left homeless in Orissa after the ferocious storm tore through thousands of villages, the state's special relief commissioner, Pradipta Kumar Mohapatra, told AFP.
Many were poor fishermen and farmers living in mud and thatched dwellings, including in the worst affected area around Gopalpur, where the eye of Phailin came ashore.
"I lost my house and also a small shaving shop, I lost everything," Janardan, 32, who uses one name, said from inside his tiny dwelling in Gopalpur. The cyclone collapsed the roof, leaving Janardan and his wife to begin the clean-up.