By Jatindra Dash
BHUBANESWAR, India, Nov 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indian authorities evacuated thousands of villagers living in low-lying areas, suspended fishing operations and put disaster response teams on standby on Wednesday as a severe cyclone hurtled towards its eastern coast.
Cyclone Lehar - the third powerful storm to hit Andhra Pradesh in seven weeks - is moving in from the Bay of Bengal and forecast to make landfall near the city of Machilipatnam on Thursday afternoon with wind speeds of up to 170 kmph (105 mph).
India's weather office predicts Lehar will also bring storm surges and heavy rains and will damage mud-and-thatch homes, disrupt power and communication networks and inundate farmland along the state's northern coast.
An alert has been issued in the districts of East and West Godavari, Guntur and Krishna, said local officials, warning people to remain indoors.
"Some 15,000 people have been evacuated from East Godavari," said C. Parthasarathy, commissioner of state disaster management department.
He said weather conditions had been normal in the area during the day and many coastal inhabitants were reluctant to move to cyclone shelters on higher ground, but he expected more people to be evacuated by the evening.
Farmers have been told to harvest any standing rice crops, fisherman warned to suspend operations, and the army, navy and disaster response teams are on standby. Helicopters have been positioned in key locations for rescue and relief operations.
Neighboring Odisha state said it was also preparing and had deployed disaster rapid action forces, predicting flooding as a result of heavy rains.
India's cyclone season generally lasts from April to December with severe storms often causing dozens of deaths, mass evacuations and widespread crop and property damage.
Officials were widely praised for a mass evacuation that saved thousands of lives last month when Cyclone Phailin struck, even though at least 60 people were killed and 12 million people lost their homes or livelihoods. A similar monster storm had killed 10,000 in 1999.
Last week, a less severe cyclone called Helen also hit Machilipatnam, killing three people.
(Writing by Nita Bhalla; Editing by Alison Williams)