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Evacuation system saves lives

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(AP)
An Indian couple clears debris of their shattered house in a cyclone-affected village Monday in Podampetta, India. A mass government evacuation of nearly 1 million people spared India the widespread deaths many had feared from the powerful weekend cyclone, which destroyed hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of crops and tens of thousands of homes.

PODAMPETTA, India (AP) – Her house in this seaside village was flattened by the cyclone that roared in from the Bay of Bengal with torrential rains and winds topping 131 miles per hour. But the fact that Agya Amma was still here to survey the pile of twisted wood and shredded thatch that had been her home proved this was a different kind of disaster for India.

Unlike past storms that have lashed India’s eastern coast, Cyclone Phailin did not extract a heavy human toll, thanks to an improbable evacuation effort that effectively moved nearly 1 million residents of one of India’s poorest regions out of the storm’s path and into government shelters.

By Monday, only 25 deaths had been reported, even though tens of thousands of homes were destroyed. The successful evacuation was earning rare praise for a country known for large-scale disasters that have caused high death tolls. In 1999, a cyclone that struck the same state killed about 10,000 people, and more than 6,000 were killed in June by flooding and mudslides in a northern state, Uttarakhand.

“If we had stayed here, everyone in the village would be dead,” said Amma, a 55-year-old fisherwoman. “I consider myself lucky to be alive.”

Still, Phailin dealt its share of misery, as hundreds of thousands of coastal residents stayed huddled in shelters because their homes were flattened and crops destroyed by the most powerful storm to hit India in more than a decade.

At least 4 days before the cyclone hit, police in the coastal states of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh began traveling through villages to warn residents of the coming storm and urge them to go to government shelters set up in schools and other concrete buildings.

While a few ignored the warnings or stayed to guard their belongings, many remembered the cyclone 14 years ago and its toll.

By Friday, the day before Phailin hit land, hundreds of thousands of people had moved inland. Amma and others from her tiny village of Podampetta walked 1.5 kilometers (a mile) to the nearest shelter and spent 2 nights waiting out the storm.

On Monday, residents ventured out to see the destruction, and many of them learned that they had lost everything.

“There is nothing to eat, no place for me to stay,” said Buchi Amma, 50, another Podampetta villager not related to Agya Amma. She said she had no idea how she and her husband would be able to buy food.

“I only want life to get back to normal,” she said, standing atop the concrete slabs of her shattered home.

A lake the size of a football field, formed when sea water surged ashore, cut across the main road out of Podampetta.

For the tens of thousands made homeless, authorities were distributing tarps so people could build makeshift shelters, state police official M.N. Rao said.

“Relief centers have been opened, and food is being supplied to the people, both dry rations as well as cooked food when possible,” he said.

Officials worked Monday to clear roads and restore communications. Train services were being restarted.

The death toll was expected to rise as officials reach isolated areas, and heavy flooding was affecting parts of Orissa where the cyclone’s rains caused rivers to overflow.

Hundreds of thousands of people were marooned in the district of Balasore, where the situation “is critical,” according to P.K. Mohapatra, the state’s head of relief operations. Authorities were air-dropping packages of food, while army personnel and speed boats were deployed to help with rescue and relief operations.

The Indian coast guard rescued 17 sailors whose cargo ship, the MV Bingo, sank during the cyclone, officials said. They were taken to a hospital in Kolkata for a check-up and are safe now, coast guard Commandant Rajendra Nath told the Press Trust of India news agency.

Meanwhile, the weakened storm was moving north Monday toward the Himalayan state of Sikkim, which was bracing for heavy rains.

The Indian Ocean is a cyclone hot spot. Of the 35 deadliest storms in recorded history, 27 have come through the Bay of Bengal — including the 1999 cyclone — and have landed in either India or Bangladesh.

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Follow Kay Johnson on Twitter at twitter.com/kayatap

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