Cyclone Ravages India's East Coast

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A massive evacuation effort appears to have saved many lives, but Cylcone Phailin flooded villages and destroyed homes. Financial Times South Asia bureau chief Victor Mallet speaks with host Rachel Martin about the extent of the damage.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. A monster cyclone hit the eastern coast of India yesterday. Cyclone Phailin packed wind speeds of 125 miles per hour. Some 800,000 people were evacuated. Victor Mallet is the South Asia bureau chief for the Financial Times. He joins us from New Delhi to give us an update on the storm and the government's relief effort. Victor, thanks so much for talking with us.

VICTOR MALLET: Hello.

MARTIN: This was being billed as a potentially devastating storm. Did it turn out that way?

MALLET: It looks as though it wasn't quite as severe as feared. There were quite a lot of the U.S. weather-watching websites that was saying it was going to be the most severe cyclone in the Indian Ocean in history. It didn't turn out that way. In fact, the Indian weather authorities said it was not even classified as a super-cyclone, although it was a very severe cyclone. The top wind speeds were around 100 knots, 200 kilometers per hour.

MARTIN: Still a severe storm. What part of the country did it end up hitting hardest? What is the level of damage?

MALLET: Well, there's a lot of physical damage. Thankfully, there seems to be very few human casualties. I mean, these are still immensely powerful winds. It came ashore on the eastern coast of India, in Orissa, near the border with Andhra Pradesh. And ripped trees up, knocked over power lines, telephone, you know, mobile telephone towers, vehicles were knocked over, including some container lorries that were just tipped on their side, even though they were completely stationary. And a lot of roofs are ripped off houses. But because of the evacuation, most people seem to be safe. It's a bit unclear whether flooding is going to be a severe problem. But at the moment, the signs are that there aren't too many fatalities.

MARTIN: You mentioned that evacuation - 800,000 people the Indian government removed from that threatened area, which is a huge undertaking. Was the evacuation considered a success?

MALLET: I think it was. Certainly, the state government and the Indian central government are saying it was a success. There was a very bad storm in 1999 and about 10,000 people were killed in that. And after that, they did set up some storm shelters and also they were able to move people into solid buildings, such as schools and temples and so on, because a lot of people live in pretty primitive housing in rural areas with very weak roofs, you know, houses made of mud. So, it looks as though most people have moved into safety before the storm struck. But there's a lot of damage to electricity supplies and roads and so on. And it'll take some time before a real full assessment can be done, I think.

MARTIN: But you mentioned that 1999 storm. The government learned some lessons there?

MALLET: Yes, I think so. And also India has really moved on a lot since then. It's just a much better connected place than it was. Many more people have mobile phones. In the old days, it was just very hard to make contact with remote areas by landline. And now almost everybody has a mobile phone. And the air system is better, the road system is better. So, I think that, you know, the better infrastructure plus the predictions that the storm was coming and the preparations that were made meant that the human damage, at least, was not as severe as it was back then.

MARTIN: Victor Mallet from the Financial Times. He spoke with us from New Delhi. Thank so much, Victor.

MALLET: Thank you.

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