By Jatindra Dash
VISAKHAPATNAM India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Volunteers, disaster management officials and aid workers conducted mock evacuation drills in hundreds of villages along India's east coast on Friday as a powerful cyclone approached, threatening devastation to farmland and fishing hamlets.
Cyclone Hudhud was about 470 km (292 miles) offshore on Friday, satellite images showed, and was expected to hit land around the key port city of Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh on Sunday morning. It will also impact neighboring Odisha state.
The cyclone, forecast to bring gusts of up to 155 kph (96 mph), could disrupt the lives of millions, the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System (GDACS) run by the United Nations and the European Commission said.
"Up to 7.2 million people can be affected by wind speeds of cyclone strength or above. In addition, 94,000 people are living in coastal areas below 5 meters (16 feet) and can therefore be affected by storm surge," the GDACS website said.
Under an overcast sky, around 250 volunteers, aid workers and disaster management officials gathered at a cyclone shelter in Kanamana village, two kms (1.2 miles) from the coast in Gopalpur in Odisha to conduct a mock evacuation drill.
Disaster management officials and local volunteers in bright orange vests and megaphones moved around, telling villagers to be prepared to leave if an alert is issued on Saturday.
"Some people listen when the warnings are given, but there are others who need to be convinced to move," said B. Venkatrabana, a village volunteer, helping with the drills.
"It's difficult to convince them as they don't want to leave their possessions, which is why we are trying to do a mock drill today just to make sure they understand the seriousness of it when the time comes."
PREPARED FOR THE STORM
Cyclones in the Bay of Bengal are common at this time of year, often causing deaths, mass evacuations of coastal villages, power and telecoms disruptions and widespread damage to crops and property in eastern India and Bangladesh.
India's weather office said the heavy rainfall and strong winds would likely cause extensive damage and warned of flooding and storm surges up to two meters (6.5 feet) in low-lying areas.
Local officials, aid workers and disaster response forces said they were prepared for cyclone Hudhud.
Authorities have been stocking cyclone shelters with dry food rations, water purification tablets and generators. They have opened up 24-hour emergency control rooms and dispatched satellite phones to officials in charge of vulnerable districts.
The National Defense Response Forces said it had sent 39 teams - comprising 1,573 staff with 193 boats and other rescue equipment - to various parts of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha.
But some local residents remained concerned.
"The sea has become very rough. We are seeing very high tides," said Someswa Rao, a fisherman, who had just returned to coast of Visakhapatnam. "We are afraid."
(Additional reporting by Ratnajyoti Das and Nita Bhalla in New Delhi. Writing by Nita Bhalla; Editing by Katie Nguyen)