Bhubaneswar/New Delhi | A massive exodus was underway in coastal Odisha on Thursday as hundreds of thousands of people left their home and hearth, on foot and by vehicles, to escape the fury of cyclone 'Fani' in probably the largest evacuation ahead of a natural disaster in the country.
Fani is the most severe cyclonic storm since the super cyclone of 1999 that claimed close to 10,000 lives and left a trail of destruction in vast swathes of the state, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Centre (JWTC).
India Meteorological Department (IMD) sources said it is also the first cyclonic storm of such severity to have formed in April in India's oceanic neighbourhood in 43 years.
The Railways said around 102 trains have been cancelled in the last two days in view of the 'extremely severe' cyclonic storm 'Fani', which is likely to affect Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal, while three special trains have been pressed into service to ferry stranded passengers from affected areas.
The national transporter said it will grant full refund to passengers for the cancelled or diverted trains if tickets are produced for cancellation within three days from the scheduled date of journey.
Over 11.5 lakh people in vulnerable, low lying areas of 13 districts are being shifted to cyclone shelters and other safe houses, in arguably the largest evacuation ever before an impending natural calamity, officials said.
Lugging their valuables, people were seen boarding buses and tempos made available by the administration, or walking to safer places amid drizzle on a windy day, as the sea got increasingly rough.
Nearly 3.5 lakh people have already been evacuated to safety, official sources said.
"Evacuation is in progress on a war-footing. Around 30% of the targeted people have so far been moved to safe places," said a senior official.
Fani, according to sources, has gathered speed and is rolling menacingly towards Odisha coast and is likely to make a landfall close to Gopalpur near the holy town of Puri between 8-10 a.m on Friday.
The latest IMD bulletin said it lay centred over west-central Bay of Bengal about 320 km south-southwest of Puri.
Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard have already been put on high alert to meet any eventuality. Personnel of National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force (ODRAF) and fire service have been deployed in vulnerable areas to assist the administration.
Leave of all doctors and health officials have been cancelled till May 15, state's chief secretary A P Padhi said.
In New Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reviewed the preparedness to tackle the situation that might obtain once the cyclone makes the landfall. The meeting was attended by the Cabinet Secretary, the Principal Secretary to the PM, the Additional Principal Secretary to the PM, the Home Secretary, and other senior officials from the IMD, NDRF, NDMA and PMO.
Three special trains are being run from Puri to Howrah and Shalimar in West Bengal on Thursday to facilitate the evacuation of tourists, he said, adding train services between Bhadrak and Vizianagaram stood cancelled for at least two days from Thursday evening.
Flight operations from Bhubaneswar airport will remain suspended for 24 hours from Thursday midnight.
India's biggest oil and gas producer ONGC has evacuated close to 500 of its employees from offshore installations in the Bay of Bengal and moved drilling rigs to safer locations ahead of an impending cyclone.
Sources privy to the development said while operations at Paradip port in Odisha and Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh have been shut and ships have been ordered to move out to sea to avoid damage, the refineries are operating but with all precautions in place.
The cyclone will likely hit at least 14 Odisha districts - Puri, Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapara, Balasore, Bhadrak, Ganjam, Khurda, Jajpur, Nayagarh, Cuttack, Gajapati, Mayurbhanj, Dhenkanal and Keonjhar.
Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has appealed to the people not to panic as the government is fully prepared to deal with the situation in the aftermath of the cyclone. He also held discussions with telecom operators and reviewed their preparedness for maintaining telecommunication links, as they are critical to relief and rescue efforts.