Cyclone Phailin was expected to be one of the most powerful, potentially deadly storms in history when hit land Saturday evening, dropping howling winds and buckets of rain on India's coastline. But the storm weakened considerably and the country escaped with a minimal loss of life.
The storm was the strongest the country has seen in a decade, with sustained winds of approximately 124 miles per hour when it made landfall around 9 p.m. Saturday. But the storm lost its intensity quickly after coming ashore. Windspeed was cut in half, to about 49 miles per hour, by Sunday afternoon. In all, some areas will see up to ten inches of rain before the storm dissipates completely. Officials have so far confirmed 17 deaths, a number that's expected to rise once evacuation efforts can access more rural areas hit by the storm, but is also far below what some expected from the storm.
But, all in all, the storm was far weaker than what American forecasters had predicted. This fact was not lost on Indian officials, the Associated Press reports:
Indian officials spoke dismissively of American forecasters who had warned of a record-breaking cyclone that would drive a massive wall of water — perhaps as large as 9 meters high (30 feet high) — into the coastline.
"They have been issuing warnings, and we have been contradicting them," said L.S. Rathore, director-general of the Indian Meteorological Department. "That is all that I want to say."
Phailin still caused plenty of damage, though. Many houses made of mud or flimsy materials were washed away in the heavy rainfall. Some of the stranded were still in packed shelters on Sunday avoiding the rain. But the military has been deployed along coastal towns, like the hard-hit Orissa, to make sure recovery efforts went smoothly Sunday and citizens were able to find shelter.
India's preparation efforts are being credited for preventing a massive loss of life because of the storm. (A similar storm in 1999 killed more than 10,000 people.) Phailin could have claimed more lives, but Indian officials were able to organize an astonishing evacuation effort, moving more than 800,000 people over the last few days. An improved communications system since the last destructive storm is what made the biggest difference, per The New York Times:
There are many reasons for the change, but a vastly improved communications system is probably the most important. Nearly a billion people routinely use mobile phones in India, up from fewer than 40 million at the turn of the century. Even many of the poorest villages now have televisions, and India’s media market is saturated with 24-hour news channels that have blanketed the nation’s airwaves with coverage of the storm.
As fortunate as India was to limit the loss of life so dramatically, there's still plenty of wreckage to clean up Sunday as the storm makes its way through the country. The Guardian has a great gallery showing the preparation efforts, Phailin's aftermath, and the intense waves that did batter India's shore last night.