Cyclone barrels towards India’s eastern coast

BHUBANESWAR, India - A "very severe" cyclone gathered speed as it barrelled towards India's east coast Friday where the army mobilised to assist with evacuation efforts and panicked locals recalled a devastating storm in 1999.

India's air force sent teams to assist with moving people out of the path of Cyclone Phailin, which was expected to make landfall on Saturday evening accompanied by a storm surge of up to two and a half metres (seven feet).

The storm "would increase in intensity with gale wind-speed reaching 205-215 kilometres (127-134 miles) per hour at the time of landfall", the Indian Meteorological Department said as it upgraded its warnings on Friday.

L.S. Rathore, the director general of the IMD, told local television that Phailin was gaining intensity over the Bay of Bengal and is "very close to super cyclonic storm," the most powerful form.

In the state capital Bhubaneswar, where trees were already bending under the strain of strong winds, panic buying saw many shops running low on food, with memories strong of the 1999 storm which killed thousands of people.

"I'm feeling scared and tense. My son is expected to arrive Sunday. Now I think he wont make it", housewife Manjushree Das told AFP.

Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik wrote to the defence ministry appealing for help, saying that "despite preparedness by the state government, the impact of a very severe cyclonic storm requires support of the defence forces".

The air force, fresh from assisting massive flooding in the Himalayas in June, said it was sending emergency teams to state capital Bhubaneswar as well as putting transport planes and helicopters on standby on nearby bases.

The army and navy were also preparing to assist.

The National Disaster Response Force, much criticised over its lack of preparedness for the Himalayan floods which killed almost 6,000, said it had sent 42 teams to Orissa and Andhra Pradesh in advance.

The cyclone, currently about 500 kilometres (310 miles) off the coast, has strengthened dramatically in recent days as it heads towards the east coast where much of the population lives in shanties or huts with thatched roofs.

Authorities said they have raised a "high alert" across 14 out of 30 districts of Orissa and met with local aid groups who have been asked to assist with evacuations from coastal areas.

"We have already deployed our entire disaster mitigation force on pre-storm initiatives", special relief commissioner for the state, Pradipta Mohapatra, told AFP.

State officials feared wind speeds could touch levels higher than that of a deadly super-cyclone that hit Orissa in 1999, knocking out power lines, railway links and trees.

A government report on the disaster put the death toll at 8,243 while 445,000 livestock perished.

"We are fighting against nature. We are better prepared this time, we learnt a lot from 1999," the state's Disaster Management Minister Surya Narayan Patra told the NDTV news channel.

"The first priority will be to save people's lives, ensure food and electricity," Patra said.

India and Bangladesh are hit regularly by cyclones that develop in the Bay of Bengal between April and November, causing deaths and widespread damage to property.

Last January, Cyclone Thane struck the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, killing 42 people.