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Cyclone Hudhud hammers India's eastern seaboard, at least two dead

[VISAKHAPATNAM, India] Cyclone Hudhud blasted India's eastern seaboard on Sunday with gusts of up to 195 kilometres an hour, uprooting trees, damaging buildings and killing at least two men despite a major evacuation effort.

The port city of Visakhapatnam, home to two million people and a major naval base, was hammered as the cyclone made landfall, unleashing the huge destructive force it had sucked up from the warm waters of the Bay of Bengal.

Fallen trees and wreckage were strewn across the streets of Visakhapatnam, known to locals as Vizag. Most people heeded warnings to take refuge, but two men who ventured out were killed - one by a falling tree, the other when a wall collapsed. "The Visakhapatnam situation is very serious," K Hymavathi, the special commissioner for disaster management for Andhra Pradesh state, told Reuters by telephone. "Telecommunications are disrupted - even our control room is not able to operate properly. People staying in their apartments are so afraid that they are panicking and calling us," she said, confirming that Hudhud had made landfall before noon local time (0630 GMT).

India's disaster relief agency organised the evacuation of more than 150,000 people on Saturday to minimise the toll from Hudhud - which is similar in size and power to cyclone Phailin that devastated the area one year ago to the day.

The India Meteorological Department (IMD) forecast a storm surge of 1-2 metres above high tide that could result in flooding of low-lying coastal areas around Visakhapatnam, Vijayanagaram and Srikakulam.

A Reuters reporter staying in Vizag said his hotel had suffered broken windows while the ground floor was flooded by lashing, horizontal rain.

Hotel staff abandoned efforts to keep the water out when they were blown back several metres by the wind. They were only able to regain their footing by linking arms, and retreated quickly into the hotel.

The winds were deafening, the reporter said, sounding at times like explosions going off. "I never imagined that a cyclone could be so dangerous and devastating," said a businessman from the western state of Gujarat staying in the hotel. "I'm even afraid to stay in my room - the noise it is making would terrify anyone." Vizag port suspended operations on Saturday night, with its head saying that 17 ships which had been in the harbour were moving offshore where they would be less at risk from high seas.

The city airport was closed and train services suspended.

The IMD rated Hudhud as a very severe cyclonic storm that could pack gusts of 195 km/h and dump more than 24.5 cm of rain in some places.

The Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System (GDACS), run by the United Nations and the European Commission, forecast even higher peak wind speeds of 212 km/h. That would make Hudhud a Category 4 storm capable of inflicting "catastrophic" damage.

Around 150,000 people were evacuated on Saturday in Andhra Pradesh to high-rise buildings, shelters and relief centres, authorities said. On Sunday, some in districts less at risk were allowed to return home.

Thousands more were moved to safety further north in the state of Odisha.

Cyclones in the Bay of Bengal are common at this time of year. These often cause deaths, mass evacuations of coastal villages, disruption of power and phone services as well as damage to crops and property in eastern India and Bangladesh.

The cyclone was strong enough to have a "high humanitarian impact" on nearly 11 million people, the GDACS said in an updated bulletin.

The evacuation effort was comparable in scale to the one that preceded Cyclone Phailin exactly a year ago, and which was credited with minimising fatalities to 53. When a huge storm hit the same area 15 years ago, 10,000 people died.

Hudhud was likely to batter a 200-300 km stretch of coastline for several hours on Sunday before losing force as it tracks inland, weather forecasters said. "The landfall process could take up to 10 or 12 hours," said Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist at U.S. online magazine Slate who has been tracking Hudhud's progress. "The worst-case scenario would be if Hudhud's eye makes landfall just south of the city, which would direct the full brunt of the eyewall and maximum storm surge towards Vizag," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

According to the IMD, its peak wind speeds will drop to 60 km/h by Monday afternoon. Hudhud is expected to continue to dump heavy rains and, eventually, snow when it reaches the Himalayan mountains. - Reuters