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India relocates hundreds of thousands as Cyclone Vayu strengthens

India has relocated hundreds of thousands of people to shelters along the coast in its western state of Gujarat as a cyclone gathering intensity over the Arabian Sea is expected to hit land on Thursday.

Storm expected to make landfall in western Gujarat state on Thursday

People move a fishing boat to safer ground on the Arabian Sea coast in Veraval, in India's Gujarat state on Wednesday. (Ajit Solanki/Associated Press)

India has relocated hundreds of thousands of people to shelters along the coast in its western state of Gujarat as a cyclone gathering intensity over the Arabian Sea was expected to hit land on Thursday.

Weather officials said Cyclone Vayu, with wind speeds equivalent to those of a Category 1 hurricane, is set to cross the coast with sustained wind speeds of 145 km/h to 155 km/h that could gust as high as 170 km/h.

Vayu could create a storm surge of up to two metres above normal tides, which would inundate low-lying areas, according to the India Meteorological Department.

The state government said that by midday local time, National Disaster Response Force teams had begun moving about 300,000 people from the most vulnerable areas into shelters.

Gujarat's chief minister, Vijay Rupani, requested on social media that tourists leave coastal areas by Wednesday afternoon.

The federal home minister, Amit Shah, also urged officials to ensure swift restoration of utilities such as power, telecoms and drinking water if they are disrupted by the cyclone.

Strong, prolonged winds

The scale of the possible damage when Vayu makes landfall wasn't immediately clear, but meteorologists predicted the destruction of thatched homes, flooding of escape routes and widespread damage to crops. They recommended that authorities focus evacuation efforts on residents of makeshift housing, from beachside huts to urban slums.

Vayu was forecast to skirt the coast as it travelled west toward Pakistan, retaining its intensity for as long as 12 hours as it straddled land and sea.

"Very strong wind will likely remain for a longer period," said R.K. Jenamani, a government scientist. "It's a very unique kind of system."

The India Meteorological Department (IMD) warned the cyclone could hold up the arrival of annual monsoon rains, as the storm draws rain clouds from over the sea.

The monsoon was already about a week late in arriving at Kerala on the southern coast this year, and much of the country has broiled in a summer heatwave in recent weeks.

Refineries in storm's path

Gujarat is also home to large refineries and sea ports near the storm's path.

India's biggest oil refinery, owned by Reliance Industries, is in Gujarat, though a company official said the cyclone was expected to weaken by the time it reached the Jamnagar-based refinery.

A National Disaster Response Force officer asks residents to leave their village near Dwaraka in the western state of Gujarat on Wednesday. (National Disaster Response Force via AP)

"But in case the course changes or intensifies, the refinery is ready for any contingency," he added, declining to be identified as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Sikka Ports and Terminals Ltd, which handles crude oil and refined products for Reliance Industries Ltd, halted vessel berthing at a western port on Wednesday over a cyclone warning, according to a port notice.

The company's ports also handle oil and refined products cargo for Bharat Oman Refineries Ltd, a subsidiary of state-run Bharat Petroleum Corp Ltd.

Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Ltd is preparing to move employees at two ports it runs to safer areas, a spokesman said.

"Our Mundra and Tuna ports will be closest to the path," he added. "All the necessary precautions are being put in place."

Personnel with India's National Disaster Response Force check their tools ahead of a cyclone. (Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images)

Nayara Energy, owned by a consortium led by Russia's Rosneft, said it was monitoring the situation and also taking precautionary measures at its Gujarat refinery.

In May, Cyclone Fani, the equivalent of a Category 4 hurricane, killed at least 34 people on India's eastern coast, destroying houses and ripping off roofs.

Authorities had evacuated more than 1.2 million people in advance of the storm, after an even more powerful cyclone in 1999 killed about 10,000 people and caused damage running into billions of dollars.

With files from The Associated Press