Cyclone Phailin Relief Operation Begins In India As David Cameron Pledges Support From UK

India is facing a massive relief operation after Cyclone Phailin struck the east of the country, killing at least 17 people and forcing up to a million people to flee.

Prime Minister David Cameron and International Development Secretary Justine Greening both tweeted that the UK would do what it could to help.

Nearly a million people were forced to flee as the massive storm roared ashore, destroying tens of thousands of thatch homes, but early indications were that the death toll was relatively low, thanks in part to the mass evacuations.

Officials spoke of 17 fatalities whereas a cyclone of similar strength 14 years ago killed 10,000 people.

The devastated coast of India

Ms Greening said: "We are closely monitoring cyclone #Phailin and ready to assist as required. Our thoughts are with everyone in eastern India at this time."

A spokeswoman for the Department for International Development said: "International Development Minister Alan Duncan is due to arrive in India tomorrow morning. He is on a planned visit to review the UK's transitioning development relationship with India announced in November 2012. He will take a close interest in what support can be provided following the cyclone."

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Cyclone Phailin

International aid agencies were already in place to help with the aftermath of the storm - the strongest to hit India in more than a decade.

The cyclone reached land early on Saturday night and caused large-scale power and communications failures and shut down road and rail links.

Seawater pushed inland, swamping villages where many people survive as subsistence farmers in mud and thatch huts, and destroying hundreds of millions of pounds' worth of crops.

The final death toll is expected to climb further as officials reach areas of the coast that remain isolated by downed communication links and blocked roads, but the careful planning for the event 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."

Indian weather experts said the storm had sustained winds of up to 131mph while it was over land. The US Navy's Hawaii-based Joint Typhoon Warning Center reported maximum sustained winds of 138mph and gusts up to 167mph four hours before it reached the Indian coast.

More than 870,000 people were evacuated in Orissa state and more than 100,000 in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh.

Save the Children said it was working with the Indian government and partners to assess the needs of children.

Spokesman Devendra Tak, in Puri, said: "The hotel I stayed in was one of the tallest buildings in the area, so I could see far around. From here in Puri, the damage does not look as bad as we thought it could be: telephone posts have been pulled up from the ground, and trees uprooted, but buildings remain - for the most part - intact.

"Looking out to the ocean, it's clear the water is still quite rough. On the ground, people are starting to come out, there are children on the streets. The wind is still quite strong although the rains have let up.

"The wind speed is very high, so we anticipate that there may be delays in being able to reach the most vulnerable families with aid. This also means it could take some time before the full extent of the damage is known, but our teams are working around the clock to coordinate a rapid response and meet the needs of those affected."

A spokeswoman for Oxfam said the next few hours remained crucial for tens of thousands of Indians stuck in the middle of one of the country's largest natural disasters.

"The major challenge is to clear debris and to quickly restore communications. Oxfam India's staff will assess the situation as soon as possible. Oxfam India has contingency stock on standby for deployment to address vital water and sanitation needs and emergency shelter needs for over 30,000 people during the initial stage of the crisis."

ActionAid said the cyclone had caused huge damage, with three million trees uprooted and hundreds of thousands of homes damaged.

Ghasiram Panda, programme manager for ActionAid India, said: "Our partners in the worst affected parts are trying to send in as much information but the communication is slow and patchy as telephone and electricity lines are down and their phones and laptops are running on low battery. Our assessment teams are also waiting for the weather and roads to clear up.

"We are yet to access the rural areas, so a clearer picture of the true extent of damage will emerge only in a day or two.

But from the early reports we've received from our partners on the ground it appears that damage to crops, nets, boats, kuccha (non-cemented) houses and other small infrastructure appears extensive.

"Over three million trees have been uprooted, electricity and communication lines have been damaged."

Children's charity Plan International said families would need help to rebuild their lives after fleeing the devastation of the cyclone.

Head of disaster response, Dr Unni Krishnan, said: "Close to one million people are living in temporary safe centres - health and sanitation requirements must be a priority."

He praised the work of government agencies in evacuating thousands of families.

"This attention to detail should remain when shifting to the relief phase because post-disaster scenarios can be a breeding ground for disease outbreaks," said Dr Krishnan.

"Children must be the priority. For a lot of them, this will have been the first time they've seen a cyclone and it will have had a massive impact on them."

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