A massive exodus was underway in coastal Odisha on Thursday as hundreds of thousands of people left their home and hearth, on foot and by vehicles, to escape the fury of cyclone Fani in probably the largest evacuation ahead of a natural disaster in the country.
Fani is the most severe cyclonic storm since the super cyclone of 1999 that claimed close to 10,000 lives and left a trail of destruction in vast swathes of the state, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Centre (JWTC).
India Meteorological Department (IMD) sources said it is also the first cyclonic storm of such severity to have formed in April in India's oceanic neighbourhood in 43 years.
Over 11.5 lakh people in vulnerable, low lying areas of 13 districts are being shifted to cyclone shelters and other safe houses, in arguably the largest evacuation ever before an impending natural calamity, officials said.
Lugging their valuables, people were seen boarding buses and tempos made available by the administration, or walking to safer places amid drizzle on a windy day, as the sea got increasingly rough.
Nearly 3.5 lakh people have already been evacuated to safety, official sources said.
"Evacuation is in progress on a war-footing. Around 30 per cent of the targeted people have so far been moved to safe places," said a senior official.
While most people began shifting voluntarily, some who were reluctant, were persuaded to leave for safer places, he said.
Fani, according to sources, has gathered speed and is rolling menacingly towards Odisha coast clocking 16 km per hour. It is likely to make a landfall close to Gopalpur near the holy town of Puri tomorrow morning, much before the earlier forecast of 3 pm on Friday.
The latest IMD bulletin said it lay centred over west-central Bay of Bengal about 320 km south-southwest of Puri. Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard have already been put on high alert to meet any eventuality. Personnel of National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force (ODRAF) and fire service have been deployed in vulnerable areas to assist the administration.
Leave of all doctors and health officials have been cancelled till May 15, state's chief secretary A P Padhi said.
State police chief R P Sharma said leave of all police personnel have also been cancelled and those on leave have been asked to immediately report for duty.
In New Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reviewed the preparedness to tackle the situation that might obtain once the cyclone makes the landfall.
The meeting was attended by the Cabinet Secretary, the Principal Secretary to the PM, the Additional Principal Secretary to the PM, the Home Secretary, and other senior officials from the IMD, NDRF, NDMA and PMO.
Indian Railways said a large number of trains have been cancelled as a precutionary measure.
"Emergency control is to operate round-the-clock with helpline number for guiding passengers. No staff is to be allowed to go on leave for the next three days," the national transporter said in New Delhi.
The East Coast Railway (ECoR) has cancelled over 103 trains as a precautionary step, an ECoR official said in Bhubaneswar.
Three special trains are being run from Puri to Howrah and Shalimar in West Bengal on Thursday to facilitate the evacuation of tourists, he said, adding train services between Bhadrak and Vizianagaram stood cancelled for at least two days from Thursday evening.
Flight operations from Bhubaneswar airport will remain suspended for 24 hours from Thursday midnight.
Civil Aviation Minister Suresh Prabhu said authorities concerned have been alerted so that they are ready to deal with the situation likely to be caused by the cyclone.
"Alerted all concerned to be ready to deal with Cyclone Fani. Airport Authority of India issued alert to all coastal airports to ensure all precautions, SOPs (standard operating procedures) put in place immediately," Prabhu tweeted.
India's biggest oil and gas producer ONGC has evacuated close to 500 of its employees from offshore installations in the Bay of Bengal and moved drilling rigs to safer locations ahead of an impending cyclone.
Sources privy to the development said while operations at Paradip port in Odisha and Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh have been shut and ships have been ordered to move out to sea to avoid damage, the refineries are operating but with all precautions in place.
The cyclone is likely to cross Puri around noon and move towards West Bengal before weakening and tapering off. It is, however, still likely to impact parts of the northeast.
Parts of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu are also likely to be affected.
The cyclone will likely hit at least 14 Odisha districts - Puri, Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapara, Balasore, Bhadrak, Ganjam, Khurda, Jajpur, Nayagarh, Cuttack, Gajapati, Mayurbhanj, Dhenkanal and Keonjhar.
Arrangements have been made to start free kitchens to provide cooked food to the evacuees.
Over one lakh dry food packets have been kept ready for air dropping, Special Relief Commissioner (SRC) B P Sethi said.
Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has appealed to the people not to panic as the government is fully prepared to deal with the situation in the aftermath of the cyclone.
He also held discussions with telecom operators and reviewed their preparedness for maintaining telecommunication links, as they are critical to relief and rescue efforts.
B P Sethi said out of the 28 NDRF teams available, 25 have already been deployed, besides ODRAF contingents. He said 335 fire services units have been pressed into service.
The evacuation exercise from low lying areas will be complete by Thursday evening keeping in mind the forecast of massive tides that could surge up to 1.5 metres during the landfall, he said, adding the tidal surge will badly hit Ganjam, Puri, Khurda and Jagatsinghpur districts.
As the sea will be rough off Odisha and West Bengal coast till May 4, fishermen have been advised against venturing into the sea.
All operations were stopped at Paradip Port and Cautionary Distant Warning Signal Number Three was hoisted in all ports in Odisha. The Third Stage warning is issued at least 24 hours in advance of adverse weather over coastal areas.
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