BHUBANESHWAR, India >> Officials ordered tens of thousands of coastal villagers to flee their homes today as a massive cyclone that filled nearly the entire Bay of Bengal gathered strength and headed toward India’s eastern seaboard.
Officials canceled holy day celebrations and stockpiled emergency supplies in coastal Orissa and Andhra Pradesh states, with forecasters saying Cyclone Phailin will hit the region Saturday evening.
The Indian Meteorological Department warned that Phailin was a "very severe cyclonic storm" that was expected to hit with maximum sustained winds of 130-135 miles per hour.
However, the U.S. Navy’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center at Pearl Harbor forecast maximum sustained winds of 167 mph with gusts up to 196 mph.
U.S. meteorologists said this is a storm that is flirting with historic-sized power.
"If it’s not a record it’s really, really close," University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy told The Associated Press. "You really don’t get storms stronger than this anywhere in the world ever. This is the top of the barrel."
To compare to killer U.S. storms, McNoldy said Phailin is near the size of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,200 people, but with the much stronger wind power of 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, which was a Category 5 storm at landfall in Miami.
The storm shows no sign of weakening and has an impressive eye, said Ryan Maue of the private weather firm Weather Bell. He called it a "critically dangerous situation with a rare Category 5 landfall," which he said in that region has a history of being catastrophic.
If the storm continues on its current path without weakening, it is expected to cause large-scale power and communications outages and shut down road and rail links, officials said. There would also be extensive damage to crops.
Satellite images of the storm showed its spinning tails reaching nearly 1,000 miles from the east coast of India to the west coast of Myanmar, an area roughly the size of France.
Using trucks and buses, authorities evacuated 40,000 people from 40 villages to government-run shelters, schools and buildings in five districts of Orissa state, said Surya Narayan Patra, the state revenue and disaster management minister.
Patra said officials plan to take another 100,000 people to safer areas before the cyclone hits.
"No one will be allowed to stay in mud and thatched houses in the coastal areas," he said.
The government also began evacuating 64,000 people from the low-lying areas of three vulnerable districts in neighboring Andhra Pradesh state, said state Revenue Minister N. Raghuveera Reddy.
Officials have been stockpiling emergency food supplies, and setting up shelters for people expected to flee the heavy winds and rains. The Indian air force said four transport planes and 18 helicopters were being kept ready for relief operations in the region.
Weather forecasters had been predicting waves up to 7 feet, but warned that the storm has been gaining strength and its impact could be severe.
What makes this storm so fearsome is that there’s no wind shear to weaken it and the water that is fueling it is warm and deep, McNoldy said. Those are the ingredients for a record storm.
The Bay of Bengal has been the scene of some of the deadliest storms in recent history. A 1999 Orissa cyclone killed 10,000 people.
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," said Masters, who used to fly into hurricanes. "This is a top end Category 5 cyclone. You don’t get these very often."