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12/10/2013 05:52 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Cyclone Phailin: Mass Evacuations In India As 'Super Cyclone' Blasts Towards East Coast

Nearly 600,000 people have fled to storm shelters after Indian authorities issued a red alert and warned of major damage when one of the largest cyclones the country has ever seen bore down on its east coast Saturday.

Officials canceled holy day celebrations and stockpiled emergency supplies in coastal Orissa and Andhra Pradesh states, with forecasters saying Cyclone Phailin, is expected to affect 12 million people.

cyclone

Fears have been sparked after a deadly super-cyclone in 1999 killed more than 10,000 people in Orissa.

"This is one of the largest evacuations undertaken in India," said Shashidhar Reddy, vice chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority, who estimated that more than 440,000 people had been evacuated.

But the size of the storm made extensive damage to property more likely, he told Reuters news agency. "Our priority is to minimise loss of life."

In a statement, the India Meteorological Department said Phailin was packing winds of between 210 kph (130 mph) and 220 kph (137 mph) and was expected to cause a 3.4-m (11-foot) surge in sea levels when it hit the coast.

Weather forecasters have been predicting waves up to 2 meters (7 feet), but warned that the storm has been gaining strength and its impact could be severe.

The Times of India newspaper warned that local meteorologists may be underestimating the severity of the storm.

This storm could get as deadly, but the region Phailin is aiming at is not quite as low lying, so that's something that might lessen its death toll, said Jeff Masters, meteorology director at the private Weather Underground.

"This is as bad as it gets," Masters told the Associated Press. "This is a top end Category 5 cyclone. You don't get these very often."