By Agence France-Presse
PURI, India – Roadside carts, store signs, and tree trunks flew in the air as Cyclone Fani’s brutal winds battered the Hindu pilgrimage city of Puri on Friday.
Palm trees lining Puri’s beach were bent double by express-train winds of 200 kilometers (125 miles) an hour that came off the Bay of Bengal.
Others were torn up and carried away into the town.
AFP correspondents in Puri said no drivers dared go out on the streets as what was billed as an ”extremely severe” storm made landfall.
One witness reported seeing a small car being pushed along a road by the winds before being turned over.
”It just went dark and then suddenly we could barely see five meters in front of us,” the man told AFP from a hotel where he had taken shelter.
”There were the roadside food carts, store signs all flying by in the air.”
”The wind is deafening there is no reason to risk going out there,” he said, before phones were cut.
Much of the city of 200,000 people lost electricity and water ahead of the storm’s arrival. Phones went dead as soon as Fani’s eye crossed on land.
”We have been unable to make contact with our team in Puri for some time now to get the latest update about the situation there,” H.R Biswas, the director of the Indian Meteorology Department in the state capital, Bhubaneswar, told AFP.
A few police vehicles and tractors had tried to move fallen trees or push aside collapsed walls but they soon disappeared as the storm power grew.
Media reports said hundreds of trees were uprooted at Chilika Lake just south of Puri in the first violent winds.
On Thursday, authorities launched a desperate campaign to persuade residents in Puri to leave.
In total, they aim to move more than 1.1 million people away from coastal areas in Odisha and nearby West Bengal states.
A storm that hit the same region in 1999 killed nearly 10,000 people.
While Indian Railways cancelled most trains in the two states, special services were organized to get Hindu pilgrims away from Puri. Major airports in the region, including Kolkata’s international airport, were closed because of the storm.
Many Puri residents chose to remain however, taking shelter in local schools and hotels.
Krishna Chandra Sahu, 43, took seven members of his family to a city hotel to ride out the storm.
”We didn’t feel our home was safe so we came here,” he told AFP.
”We will just stay for the day until the cyclone has passed. We are not scared but we feel safer here.”
Hindu faithful and local authorities anxiously surveyed the 850-year-old Jagannath temple to see how it had withstood the storm so far.
It is one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Hindus and a major draw for the Bay of Bengal resort.
Tourism accounts for three-quarters of Puri’s economy and the city can ill afford the havoc threatened by the cyclone.