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Cyclone Phailin, a monster storm, hammers India

Cyclone Phailin, a category 5 storm with winds up to 184 miles per hour, hit India's east coast Saturday. More than 500,000 people had evacuated their homes, seeking shelter from cyclone Phailin.

By Shonal GangulyAssociated Press / October 12, 2013

This satellite photo shows Cyclone Phailin approaching the east coast of India. It's one of the largest cyclone's to hit India.

U.S. Navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Center

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Behrampur, India

Hundreds of thousands of people living along India's eastern coastline were taking shelter Saturday from a massive, powerful cyclone that was set to reach land packing destructive winds and heavy rains.

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Roads were all but empty as high waves lashed the coastline of Orissa state, which will bear the brunt of Cyclone Phailin. By midafternoon, wind gusts were so strong that they could blow over grown men. Along the coast, seawater was pushing inland, swamping villages where many people survive as subsistence farmers in mud and thatch huts.

Estimates of the storm's power had dropped slightly, with the U.S. Navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Hawaii showing maximum sustained winds of about 240 kilometers per hour (150 miles per hour), with gusts up to 296 kph (184 mph).

The storm, though, remained exceedingly strong and dangerous. 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, said Indian Home Secretary Anil Goswami.

"A storm this large can't peter out that fast," said Ryan Maue, a meteorologist at Weather Bell, a private U.S. weather firm. "There's nothing to stop it at this point."

L.S. Rathore, the head of the Indian Meteorological Department, predicted a storm surge of 3-3.5 meters (10-11.5 feet), but Maue said that even in the best-case scenario there would be a surge of 7-9 meters (20-30 feet).

A storm surge — the giant wall of water that that a cyclone blasts ashore — is the big killer in such storms.

Phailin already has been large and powerful for nearly 36 hours, he said, and those winds have built up a tremendous amount of surge.

A few hours before the storm was to hit Saturday evening, about 200 villagers were jammed into a two-room schoolhouse in the village of Subalaya, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the coast, where local emergency officials were distributing food and water. The roads were almost completely empty of traffic by Saturday afternoon, but two trucks pulled up to the school with more evacuees. Children shivered in the rain as they stepped down from the vehicles, following women carrying bags jammed with possessions.

Many of the people had fled low-lying villages for the shelter of the concrete school. But some had also left behind relatives who feared the storm could wipe out lifetimes of work.

"My son had to stay back with his wife because of the cattle and belongings," said 70-year-old Kaushalya Jena, weeping in fear inside the makeshift shelter. "I don't know if they are safe."

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