NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Humanitarian agencies began dispatching tarpaulin sheets, dry food rations, water purification tablets and basic medicines to areas along India's east coast on Saturday as a massive storm approached.
Filling most of the Bay of Bengal, Cyclone Phailin is about 300 km (187 miles), satellite images showed, and is expected to reach India's Andhra Pradesh and Odisha states by nightfall.
The storm, forecast as the worst India has seen in over a decade, could cause mass disruption to up to 12 million people living in its path. Some meteorologists have compared it to Hurricane Katrina which hit the United States in 2005.
As authorities evacuated up to 400,000 coastal villagers to cyclone shelters, schools and other buildings located on elevated areas, aid agencies said they were also preparing to help with relief distributions if required.
"In a storm of this magnitude there is the potential for widespread damage to crops and livestock in the low-lying coastal areas and houses completely wiped away," said Kunal Shah, the head of World Vision’s emergency response in India.
"So while we are praying this storm loses intensity, we’re also preparing."
Aid groups have stocked emergency items such as mosquito nets, water purification tablets, tarpaulin sheets, medicines, cooking utensils and plastic mats in districts such as Ganjan, Puri, Jagatsinghpur and Srikakulam.
Phailin, packing winds of at least 220 kph (137 mph) and was expected to cause a 3.4-m (11-foot) surge in sea levels when it hit the coast, India's weather office said. Projections by the U.S. Navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Centre are much higher.
The Indian army, navy and air force are on standby and 1,600 members of the National Disaster Response Force as well as boats and helicopters were deployed in strategic positions for rescue and relief operations.
The European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Office (ECHO) says it has dispatched an expert to the area to coordinate with other aid groups and put in place contingency plans to help vulnerable communities if the cyclone's impact is severe.
"The European Commission, through its humanitarian aid department, is also preparing for the worst and hoping for the best," said a statement from the Commission.
A United Nations official said the organisation was monitoring the cyclone and stood ready to assist India should the government request help.
India'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 super cyclone battered the coast of Odisha for 30 hours with wind speeds reaching 300 kph. It killed 10,000 people.
Many of the people living along the coast are fishing and farming communities living hand-to-mouth in mud-and-brick or thatched houses, which are likely to be devastated by the gale force winds and thrashing rains. Their means of making a living such as fishing boats and crops could be lost, aid workers said.
India's disaster preparedness has improved dramatically in recent years, and aid workers praised precautions taken by authorities for Phailin such as early warning, pre-positioning of rations in shelters and orderly evacuations.
Communities along cyclone-prone areas have also received training, with charities developing local groups of volunteers who are know basic first aid and help with evacuations, such as advising people to take important documents and where to put their cattle.
Disaster management experts said they did not expect devastation on a scale as that of the 1999 cyclone, given the level of preparedness.
"This time the preparations are very good," said G. Padmanabhan, emergency analyst at the U.N. Development Programme.
"A lot has been learnt since 1999 and my guess is that while there could be extensive damage to property and crops, the death toll will be much less."