BHUBANESWAR, India, Oct 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - I ndia began stocking shelters with rations, put disaster response teams on standby, and cancelled government employees' holidays as a cyclone hurtled towards its southeastern coast on Thursday.
Packing wind speeds of up to 185 kph (115 mph), cyclone Phailin is moving in from the Bay of Bengal and is expected to develop into a severe cyclone before hitting the coast of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha states on the night of Oct. 12.
The neighbouring state of West Bengal, and the Andaman and Nicobar islands, are also expected to experience heavy rains, gale force winds and storm surges.
Phailin is now classified as a Category 1 cyclonic storm on a scale that rises to Category 5. It is predicted to stiffen to Category 3 before reaching land between Kalingapatnam in Andhra Pradesh and Paradeep in Odisha.
"We have told the collectors (administrative heads) of 14 districts not to take this alert lightly," said Odisha's Special Relief Commissioner Pradeep Kumar Mohapatra. "We have asked them to prepare their plans at the ground level."
India's weather office said damage to homes, power and telecoms disruptions and flooding were likely, and has urged authorities to suspend fishing operations and consider evacuating coastal residents.
The country's cyclone season runs from April to December, with severe storms often causing dozens of deaths, evacuations of tens of thousands of people from low-lying villages and wide damage to crops and property.
In 1999, a Category 5 super cyclone battered the coast of Odisha for 30 hours with wind speeds reaching 300 kph (186 mph). It killed 10,000 people.
The Odisha government cancelled holidays for civil servants in vulnerable areas during the popular Hindu festival of Dussehra and ordered relief and rescue officials to spread out.
Disaster response units and fire personnel are on standby and satellite phones have been sent to district heads, to ensure communications despite possible disruptions.
In neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, government workers, who have been on a strike over a political decision to divide the state, were asked to come back to work in case of an emergency.
Helicopters and boats are being positioned in strategic spots and mobile service providers have been asked to make sure damage to communications towers is repaired immediately.
Aid workers said they were preparing for what could be a serious emergency.
"The area that could be affected is massive and there is a large population that could be hit," said Zubin Zaman, humanitarian manager for Oxfam India.
"We have asked our local partners to check on contingency stocks and be prepared to respond if local communities need relief." (Writing by Nita Bhalla; Additional reporting by Nita Bhalla in NEW DELHI, Sujoy Dhar in KOLKATA; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Clarence Fernandez)