India began sorting through miles of wreckage Sunday after powerful Cyclone Phailin roared ashore, flooding towns and villages and destroying tens of thousands of thatch homes, but officials said massive evacuation efforts had spared the east coast from widespread loss of life.
The storm, the strongest to hit India in more than a decade, destroyed hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of crops, but more than 20 hours after it made landfall in Orissa state, authorities said they knew of only 17 fatalities.
The final death toll is expected to climb further as officials reach areas of the cyclone-battered coast that remain isolated by downed communication links and blocked roads, but the evacuation of nearly 1 million people appeared to have saved many lives.
“Damage to property is extensive,” said Amitabh Thakur, the top police officer in the Orissa district worst-hit by the cyclone. “But few lives have been lost,” he said, crediting the mass evacuations.
In Gopalpur, where the storm made landfall, power lines sagged nearly to the ground and a strong surf churned off the coast. Power and electricity were out on Sunday, but by afternoon some shops had opened to brisk business selling bottled drinks and snacks.
A mermaid statue remained standing on the seaside city’s boardwalk, where most decorative street lamps still stood along with most of the city’s buildings.
“Everyone feels very lucky,” said Prabhati Das, a 40-year-old woman who came from the town of Behrampur, about 10 kilometers (7 miles) inland, to see the aftermath at the coast.
A cargo ship carrying iron ore, the MV Bingo, sank Saturday as the cyclone barreled through the Bay of Bengal, and its crew of 18 – including 17 Chinese and one Indonesian – went missing for a day, coast guard officials said. They were being rescued Sunday afternoon after their lifeboat was found about 185 kilometers (115 miles) off the Indian coast, coast guard Commandant Sharad Matri said.
The storm weakened significantly after making landfall early Saturday night, with some areas reporting little more than breezy drizzles on Sunday, but meteorologists warned that Orissa and other states in the storm’s path would face heavy rains, strong winds and rough seas for another day.
“Its intensity is still strong, but after crossing the coast it has weakened considerably,” Sharat Sahu, a top official with the Indian Meteorological Dept. in Orissa, told reporters.
Indian officials spoke dismissively of American forecasters who had warned of a record-breaking cyclone that would drive a massive wall of water – perhaps as large as 9 meters high (30 feet high) – into the coastline.
“They have been issuing warnings, and we have been contradicting them,” said L.S. Rathore, director-general of the Indian Meteorological Department. “That is all that I want to say.”
“As a scientist, we have our own opinion and we stuck to that. We told them that is what is required as a national weather service – to keep people informed with the reality without being influenced by over-warning,” he said at a news conference in New Delhi, the capital.
The Indian government had faced immense public criticism after its slow response to a series of deadly floods and mudslides in June in the northern state of Uttarakhand, where more than 6,000 people were killed.
But officials took few chances with Phailin, especially given memories of a 1999 Orissa cyclone that devastated the coastline and left at least 10,000 people dead.
Nearly 1 million people were evacuated from the coast ahead of Phailin, including more than 870,000 in Orissa and more than 100,000 in neighboring Andhra Pradesh.
Still, many people either missed the evacuation or chose to ride out the storm near the coast, for fear of losing their homes and livestock to possible looting.
Carpenter Pitambar Moharanat, 65, said he spent a terrifying night stuck in his employer’s seaside building in Gopalpur, where for six hours he listened to screaming winds shake the bolted wooden shutters until the winds eased at around 3 a.m.
“I am thanking God for sparing us,” he said.
Officials in both states had been stockpiling emergency food supplies and setting up shelters. The Indian military put some of its forces on alert, with trucks, transport planes and helicopters at the ready for relief operations.
Electric utility authorities in Orissa switched off the power in 12 districts in the path of the cyclone after scores of electric pylons toppled from the torrential rain and high winds.
The storm wreaked havoc in Behrampur, with the wind shattering windows, blowing down trees and electrical poles, and terrifying residents. But only three people died in the town, a security official said.
“The trees and the buildings could not be saved, but the people have been evacuated, so the human toll was contained so far,” said Naresh Sharma, a commander with the Indian Central Reserve Police Force.
For the people living along the coast, many of whom live as subsistence farmers in mud-and-thatch huts, the economic toll will be immense.
Heavy rains and surging seawater destroyed more than 500,000 hectares (1.23 million acres) of crops worth an estimated 24 billion rupees ($395 million), according to Orissa’s disaster minister, S.N. Patro.
British Prime Minister David Cameron described the damage as “shocking,” and said in a Twitter message that Britain would do “what it can to help.”
With some of the world’s warmest waters, the Indian Ocean is considered a cyclone hot spot, and some of the deadliest storms in recent history have come through the Bay of Bengal, including the 1999 cyclone.
U.S. forecasters had repeatedly warned that Phailin would be immense, and as the cyclone swept across the Bay of Bengal toward the Indian coast Saturday, satellite images showed its spinning tails covering an area larger than France.