Strong winds and heavy rains pounded India's eastern coastline Saturday, killing at least five people while authorities rushed to move hundreds of thousands of people away from massive Cyclone Phailin.
The storm, which is expected to pound India into Sunday before weakening, is the fiercest cyclone to threaten the country since a devastating storm killed 10,000 people 14 years ago.
The skies were dark – almost black – at midmorning in Bhubaneshwar, the capital of Orissa state and about 60 miles from the coast. Roaring winds made palm trees sway wildly, and to the south, seawater was pushing inland.
Satellite images showed the system covering an area roughly half the size of India. Some forecasters have likened its size and intensity to that of Hurricane Katrina, which blasted the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005.
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 could also be extensive damage to crops.
While there is some disagreement about how strong the storm's winds will be, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) warned that Phailin, which is expected to hit the coast by Saturday evening, is a "very severe cyclonic storm" that will bring with it maximum sustained winds of 130 to 135 mph. The IMD also predicted flooding and storm surges of about 10 feet above normal tides.
Some foreign forecasters have suggested that India's weather office is underestimating the power of Phailin, which means "sapphire" in Thai.
Other weather centers predicted stronger winds. The U.S. Navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Center forecast gusts of up to 196 mph. The London-based storm tracking service Tropical Storm Risk said Phailin was a Category 5 "super cyclone," evoking memories of the 1999 storm in Odisha, when winds reached speeds of 186 mph and battered the state for 30 hours.
Winds reached 140 mph during Hurricane Katrina in Aug. 2005.
This time Odisha's state government said it was better prepared. It broadcast cyclone warnings through loudspeakers and on radio and television as the first winds were felt on the coast and in Bhubaneswar.
Large waves were already pounding beaches in the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh. Villagers were evacuated to schools in the north of the state, while panic buying drove up food prices.
By Friday evening, some 420,000 people had been moved to higher ground or shelters in Orissa, and 100,000 more in neighboring Andhra Pradesh, Indian Home Secretary Anil Goswami told The Associated Press.
Not everybody was willing to leave homes and belongings, and some villagers on the Andhra Pradesh coast said they had not been told to evacuate.
"Of course I'm scared, but where will I move with my family?" asked Kuramayya, a fisherman from the village of Bandharuvanipeta, close to where the storm is expected to make landfall. "We can't leave our boats behind."
Officials cancelled celebrations for the Hindu holiday of Durga Puja – a celebration of the Hindu goddess Durga – and stockpiled emergency supplies in coastal Odisha and Andhra Pradesh states.
Al Jazeera and wire services