The strongest cyclone to threaten India in more than a decade bore down on its east coast Saturday as authorities bused and trucked tens of thousands of villagers from their mud and thatch coastal homes to government shelters inland.
Officials cancelled holy day celebrations and stockpiled emergency supplies in coastal Orissa and Andhra Pradesh states, with forecasters saying Cyclone Phailin, a massive storm that nearly covers the Bay of Bengal, will hit the region Saturday evening.
The Indian Meteorological Department warned that Phailin was a "very severe cyclonic storm" that was expected to hit with maximum sustained winds of 210-220 kilometres per hour.
However, the U.S. Navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Hawaii forecast maximum sustained winds of 269 km/h with gusts up to 315 km/h.
U.S. meteorologists said the storm is flirting with historic power.
"If it's not a record it's really, really close," University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy told The Associated Press. "You really don't get storms stronger than this anywhere in the world ever. This is the top of the barrel."
To compare to killer U.S. storms, McNoldy said Phailin is near the size of 2005's Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,200 people and caused devastating flooding in New Orleans, but Phailin also has the wind power of 1992's Hurricane Andrew, which had 265 km/h winds at landfall in Miami.
The storm shows no sign of weakening and has an impressive eye, said Ryan Maue of the private weather firm Weather Bell. He called it a "critically dangerous situation with a rare Category 5 landfall," which he said in that region has a history of being catastrophic.
1999 storm killed thousands
Category 5 storms have winds exceeding 250 km/h.
If the storm continues on its current path without weakening, it is expected to cause large-scale power and communications outages and shut down road and rail links, officials said. There would also be extensive damage to crops.
Satellite images of the storm showed its spinning tails reaching nearly 1,600 kilometres from the east coast of India to the west coast of Myanmar, an area roughly the size of France.
Using trucks and buses, authorities evacuated 40,000 people from 40 villages to government-run shelters, schools and buildings in five districts of Orissa state, said Surya Narayan Patra, the state revenue and disaster management minister.
Patra said officials plan to take another 100,000 people to safer areas before the cyclone hits.
"No one will be allowed to stay in mud and thatched houses in the coastal areas," he said.
The government also began evacuating 64,000 people from the low-lying areas of three vulnerable districts in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh state, said state Revenue Minister N. Raghuveera Reddy.
Officials have been stockpiling emergency food supplies, and setting up shelters for people expected to flee the heavy winds and rains. The Indian air force said four transport planes and 18 helicopters were being kept ready for relief operations in the region.
Weather forecasters had been predicting waves up to 2 metres, but warned that the storm has been gaining strength and its impact could be severe.
What makes this storm so fearsome is that there's no wind shear to weaken it and the water that is fueling it is warm and deep, McNoldy said. Those are the ingredients for a record storm.
The Bay of Bengal has been the scene of some of the deadliest storms in recent history. A 1999 Orissa cyclone of similar strength killed 10,000 people.
This storm could get as deadly, but the region Phailin is aiming at is not quite as low lying, so that's something that might lessen its death toll, said Jeff Masters, meteorology director at the private Weather Underground.
"This is as bad as it gets," said Masters, who used to fly into hurricanes. "This is a top end Category 5 cyclone. You don't get these very often."