BHUBANESWAR - A deadly cyclone packing winds of up to 200 kilometres an hour made landfall in India Saturday after authorities evacuated more than half a million people from along the storm-lashed east coast.

Cyclone Phailin barrelled into the impoverished states of Andhra Pradesh and Orissa shortly after 9:00pm (1530 GMT) and would continue to wreak havoc along a 150-kilometre stretch of coastline for the next six hours, the country’s meteorology service said.

“Very severe cyclone Phailin has just started crossing the coast near Gopalpur” in Orissa, LS Rathore, the director general of the Indian Meteorological Office, told reporters.

“The reported wind speed is 200 kph.”

A government source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP that six people had been reported dead in the two states. The Times of India said four were killed by falling trees in Orissa and that an 80-year-old was crushed to death when her mud home collapsed.

Even before the cyclone made landfall, strong winds had torn away trees and ripped through flimsy homes.

At one stage, the storm packed gusts of up to 240 kilometres per hour as it churned over the Bay of Bengal, making it the most powerful cyclone to hit the area since 1999, when more than 8,000 died.

Authorities said they expected three-metre storm surges, with torrential rain also threatening floods in low-lying areas in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh.

“I dread this Phailin. It’s as if the world is coming to an end,” 23-year-old student engineer Apurva Abhijeeta told AFP from the coastal town of Puri, 70 kilometres from Orissa’s state capital Bhubaneswar.

Heavy waves pounded the coast as terrified locals made their way to solid buildings, cramming into packed rickshaws and buses as they travelled. Relief efforts were under way, with free food being served in shelters.

Food stockpiling began earlier in the week as Phailin gathered strength dramatically, with many shops stripped bare.

“Everyone’s in trouble so I’ve kept my shop open to help them,” said shopkeeper Susil Kumar Singh, the owner of one of the few stores still operating in Bhubaneswar.

“Right now, there’s no drinking water and trees are falling down all around.”

Further south in Visakhapatnam, fishermen frantically sought to secure their boats while farmers tethered their livestock in the afternoon. Large boats could be seen anchored out at sea, while the biggest port in Orissa, in Paradip, has shut down. An AFP correspondent on the last flight to arrive in Bhubaneswar before the airport shut described how the plane aborted the first attempted landing in shearing winds and pounding rain.

Officials put the number of people who have been evacuated from the coastal areas of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh at more than half a million.

Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde told reporters that 450,000 had been evacuated in Orissa and around 100,000 in Andhra Pradesh.

“Some people don’t want to leave, they are resisting,” said Shinde. “Officers are speaking to them... and getting them out.”

Officials in the neighbouring state of West Bengal said hotels along the coast had been evacuated, while officials in Chhattisgarh state said authorities would empty some of their dams into rivers to avert flooding.

The army’s National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) said 1,200 of its troops had been sent to Orissa and a further 500 to Andhra Pradesh. “As soon as the fury of the cyclone abates our boys will start their work,” NDRF director general Krishna Chaudhary told reporters.

“The teams have medical first responders (for first aid), heavy cutting equipment, life-saving equipment that responds to breathing and even to warmth. In the case of cyclones there is a likelihood of collapsed buildings.”

In the seaside town of Gopalpur, women and children were the first to pack into shelters, schools and public buildings, where they lay on mats.

Moments after the cyclone hit the town, shards of glass and asbestos strips could be seen whipping through the air “like killer projectiles”, the Press Trust of India reported. The Indian Red Cross Society also had disaster response teams ready while the air force, fresh from helping evacuate thousands from floods in the Himalayas in June, flew food and medical supplies in to Bhubaneswar.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had issued orders that “all possible assistance should be extended to the state governments concerned in ensuring the safety and security of the people and in relief and rescue operations”, according to a statement from his office.

Memories of ‘99

The cyclone was lashing the same coastal area that was hit badly in 1999, a region mostly populated with fishermen and small-scale farmers who live in flimsy huts with thatched roofs or shanties.

A government report on the 1999 disaster put the death toll at 8,243, and said 445,000 livestock perished.

Authorities have said they are better prepared this time. The Orissa government said it was setting a “zero casualty target” in the state of close to 40 million people.

Some of the deadliest storms in history have formed in the Bay of Bengal, including one in 1970 that killed hundreds of thousands of people in modern-day Bangladesh.