BEHRAMPUR, India – India began sorting through miles of wreckage Sunday after Cyclone Phailin roared ashore, flooding towns and villages and destroying tens of thousands of thatch homes, but officials said the country had been spared the widespread loss of life that many had feared.
About 18 hours after the storm — the strongest to hit India in more than a decade — made landfall in eastern Orissa state, officials said they knew of only seven fatalities, most of them people killed by falling branches or collapsing buildings in the rains ahead of the cyclone.
The final death toll will almost certainly climb, and parts of the cyclone-battered coast remain isolated by downed communication links and blocked roads. But initial indications are that the government’s evacuation of more than 600,000 people saved many lives.
“Damage to property is extensive,” Amitabh Thakur, the top police officer in the Orissa district worst-hit by the cyclone. “But few lives have been lost,” he said, crediting the mass evacuations.
The storm washed away tens of thousands of mud and thatched roof huts and sent seawater surging inland. It slowed significantly overnight, with some areas reporting little more than breezy drizzles by midday Sunday, but meteorologists said parts of the region would face heavy rains and winds for the next 24 hours.
“Its intensity is still strong, but after crossing the coast it has weakened considerably,” Sharat Sahu, a top official with the Indian Meteorological Dept. in Orissa, told reporters.
Storms typically lose much of their force when they hit land, where there is less heat-trapping moisture feeding energy into the storm.
In Behrampur, about 7 miles inland from where the eye of the cyclone struck, there were no reports of deaths early Sunday morning. But the storm had wrought havoc on the small town, with the wind shattering windows, blowing down trees and electrical poles and terrifying residents.
In the state capital of Bhubaneshwar, billboards and traffic lights had fallen across the city and trees were uprooted, but early reports indicated the state capital escaped major damage.
“The 1999 storm was very big, but this was not as strong at least in Bhubaneshwar,” said Upendra Malik, a city employee leading a crew working with axes and coils of heavy rope to clear roads of fallen trees and branches. “We’ve just started to assess the damage and coastal areas will have fared worse.”
More than 600,000 people were evacuated from the coast ahead of the storm, officials say, including more than a half-million in Orissa state, which bore the brunt of the cyclone, and 100,000 in neighboring Andhra Pradesh.
Officials in both Orissa and Andhra Pradesh state had been stockpiling emergency food supplies and setting up shelters. The Indian military put some of its forces on alert, with trucks, transport planes and helicopters at the ready for relief operations.
Electric utility authorities in Orissa had switched off the power in 12 districts in the path of the cyclone after scores of electric pylons had toppled from the torrential rain and high winds.
With some of the world’s warmest waters, the Indian Ocean is considered a cyclone hot spot, and some of the deadliest storms in recent history have come through the Bay of Bengal, including a 1999 cyclone that also hit Orissa and killed 10,000 people.
U.S. forecasters had repeatedly warned that Phailin would be immense, and as the cyclone swept across the Bay of Bengal toward the Indian coast Saturday, satellite images showed its spinning tails covering an area larger than France.
On Saturday, seawater pushed inland along the Orissa coast, swamping villages where many people survive as subsistence farmers in mud and thatch huts.
L.S. Rathore, the head of the Indian Meteorological Department, had predicted a storm surge of between 10 and 11.5 feet, but several U.S. experts had predicted that a much higher wall of water would blast ashore. Meteorologist Ryan Maue of the private U.S. weather firm Weather Bell predicted that, even in the best-case scenario, there would be a surge of 20-30 feet.
The height of the surge, though, remained unclear Sunday.
A storm surge is the big killer in such storms, though heavy rains are likely to compound the destruction. The Indian government said some 12 million people would be affected by the storm, though that figure included millions living far from the coast.