India prepares for 'extremely severe' Bay of Bengal cyclone

NEW DELHI — Hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated along India's eastern coast on Thursday as authorities braced for a cyclone moving through the Bay of Bengal that was forecast to bring extremely severe wind and rain.

The India Meteorological Department in New Delhi said Cyclone Fani was expected to make landfall on Friday with gale-force winds of up to 200 kilometers (124 miles) per hour likely starting Thursday night. It warned of "extremely heavy falls" over parts of the state of Odisha and its southern neighbor Andhra Pradesh.

India's National Disaster Management Authority forecast "high to phenomenal" sea conditions for most of the Indian states along the Bay of Bengal. Fishermen were advised not to venture into deep waters. A 1.5-meter (4.9-foot) storm surge was expected to inundate low-lying areas.

Fearing that Fani could be the worst storm since 1999, when a cyclone killed around 10,000 people and devastated large parts of Odisha, Indian officials put the navy, air force, army and coast guard on high alert, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with Cabinet ministers and weather and disaster-response officials for a briefing on the measures being taken.

The Meteorological Department projected "total destruction" of thatched-roof huts, flooding of farmland and orchards, and the uprooting of telephone poles.

Odisha's special relief commissioner, Bishnupada Sethi, said that preparations for Fani included the country's largest evacuation operation, of around 880,000 people.

More than 800 shelters were opened and around 100,000 dry food packets were ready to be airdropped.

"We've been preparing plans for the last few days to ensure that all the people who are vulnerable will be shifted to our cyclone centers," Sethi said.

Tourists were provided special trains to leave the popular beach town of Puri in Odisha on Thursday, according to Indian media reports.

The National Disaster Response Force dispatched 54 rescue and relief teams to flood-prone areas along the coast and as far afield as Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a group of islands that comprise a state located about 1,300 kilometers (840 miles) east of mainland India in the Bay of Bengal.

The teams included doctors, engineers and deep-sea divers equipped with boats, scuba sets and satellite phones, the group said in a statement.

In the coastal city of Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh, strong winds and heavy rain battered an empty beach where fishing boats had been left on shore. People piled into truck beds and buses reinforced with tin sheeting.

Residents tied plastic tarps over their tin-roof shacks before abandoning them.

Fani was also forecast to hit Bangladesh, tracking north through ports including Cox's Bazar, the coastal district where more than a million Rohingya from Myanmar live in refugee camps.

Aid agencies warned that the Rohingya were at threat. Hillol Sobhan, local communications director for the group NGO Care, said it is keeping emergency supplies for the refugees in Cox's Bazar.

The Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority said it suspended operations of all vessels. Authorities also halted activities at Chittagong Seaport, which handles 80% of the country's overseas trade.

___

Associated Press writer Julhas Alam in Dhaka, Bangladesh, contributed to this report.

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