NEW DELHI — A massive cyclone came ashore along the eastern coast of India about 9 p.m. Saturday, flooding homes throughout the region and leading to the evacuations of more than 800,000 people, one of the largest such evacuations in India’s history.
The storm’s maximum sustained winds were about 124 miles per hour with gusts reaching 150 m.p.h., according to Indian officials. At least five people were killed in the coastal city of Gopalpur because of heavy rain and high winds before the storm made landfall, officials said. The storm was expected to drop up to 10 inches of rain over the next two days in some areas.
The Indian predictions before the storm made landfall were less alarming than those from meteorological authorities in the United States. Late Friday, the United States Navy’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center said the storm, then barreling across the Bay of Bengal, had maximum sustained winds of 161 m.p.h., with gusts reaching 196 m.p.h. — making it similar to a Category 5 hurricane, the most severe.
But once the storm arrived on land, its intensity was more modest, and Indian officials defended their more measured forecast as having been more accurate.
“We are not trying to downplay the intensity of the cyclone,” M. Shashidhar Reddy, vice chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority, said at a news conference Saturday. “In fact, U.S. authorities are overplaying it.”
On Saturday, the Joint Typhoon Warning Center, in Hawaii, reduced its estimates, saying they showed maximum sustained winds of about 138 m.p.h. and gusts of up to 167 m.p.h.
L. S. Rathore, director general of the India Meteorological Department, termed the storm, named Cyclone Phailin, a “very serious cyclonic storm.” By Sunday, Mr. Reddy said, the storm is likely to be downgraded to a “serious cyclonic storm.”
Still, the true scope of natural disasters in India is often not known for days, given its large population and fairly weak central government.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a statement Saturday that he had been briefed on preparations for the storm and had directed that the central government extend all needed assistance to state officials.
In the Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh State, many mud homes and farms were destroyed, and uprooted trees blocked roads, according to officials there. About 30,000 people were evacuated from coastal villages in Andhra Pradesh.
K. Baliah, a district official involved in rescue efforts, said coastal residents were reluctant to leave until they saw sea levels rise. “At first they refused to leave their properties,” he said. Then, “when the water started to enter their communities around 2 p.m., the people decided themselves that they must leave.”