By Sanjib Kumar Roy and Jatindra Dash
PORT BLAIR/BHUBANESWAR India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A cyclone heading for India's southeast coast gathered strength on Wednesday, uprooting trees, triggering landslides and snapping power and phone links as it crossed the remote Andaman and Nicobar islands, government officials said.
Cyclone Hudhud is moving in from the Bay of Bengal and is forecast to bring gales of up to 140 kmph (87 mph), heavy rains and storm surges when it hits the coast of the eastern states of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha on Sunday afternoon.
"It is now crossing the Andaman and Nicobar Islands," the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) said in a bulletin.
"Thereafter, the system would continue to move west-northwestwards, intensify further into a severe cyclonic storm during the next 24 hours and subsequently into a very severe cyclonic storm during subsequent 36 hours."
Hudhud is expected to hit land between the key port city of Vishakhapatnam in rice-growing Andhra Pradesh and the resort of Gopalpur in the neighboring iron ore mining state of Odisha, it added.
In the Andaman and Nicobar islands, authorities shut schools, canceled ferry services and warned off fishermen.
The islands' key Andaman Trunk Road was shut after dozens of trees were uprooted. Government officials said heavy rain set off landslides and snapped some power and communication lines.
Officials said they were working to clear the fallen trees, reconnect disrupted utilities and had deployed national disaster response forces.
"I feel the entire situation will be fully under control," Tanvy Garg, the district commissioner of South Andaman, told reporters.
Disaster management preparations were in full swing in cyclone-prone Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, officials said.
"We have asked 16 districts, including all our coastal areas, to remain alert and stay prepared to meet any eventuality," P.K. Mohapatra, a key Odisha relief official, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
He said 24-hour emergency control rooms had been set up and leave for government employees canceled in high-risk districts.
Panicked coastal villagers on Wednesday scrambled to buy items of food and fuel, from rice and potatoes to petrol.
Television broadcast images of crowds outside vegetable stores and queues at petrol stations in Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha.
In Andhra Pradesh, the state government has placed local authorities on high alert in nine of 13 districts.
"In all coastal districts two months' buffer stocks of food items are available," said Hymabati, a state disaster management official. "We are in constant touch with weather officials. As of now there is no problem."
India's cyclone season usually runs from April to December, with severe storms often causing dozens of deaths, evacuations of thousands of residents of low-lying villages and extensive crop and property damage.
In October last year, the severe cyclone Phailin battered Odisha and parts of Andhra Pradesh, ripping up tens of thousands of mud-and-thatch homes, inundating farmland and severing electricity and telecoms lines.
But effective preparations, such as the evacuation of close to one million people to cyclone shelters, helped save numerous lives, said aid workers, who compared Phailin to a monster storm that killed 10,000 people in 1999.
(Writing by Nita Bhalla; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)