BHUBANESHWAR, INDIA: Officials ordered tens of thousands of coastal villagers to flee their homes Friday 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 tonight.
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 in Hawaii forecast a much more severe impact: maximum sustained winds of 167 miles per hour with gusts up to 196 miles per hour.
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,” said University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy.
“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.