By S. Murari
CHENNAI, Dec 29 (AlertNet) - India's weather office called on Thursday for villages to be evacuated, farmers to protect their crops and fishermen to stay ashore hours before a cyclone was due to strike the southeast coast.
With winds of up to 155 kph (96 mph), cyclone Thane is moving in from the Bay of Bengal and is expected to reach the coast within the next 12 hours, close to the former French colonial town of Pondicherry in Tamil Nadu state.
"Total suspension of fishing operations. Coastal hutment dwellers to be moved to safer place. People in affected areas to remain indoors," the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) advised in its latest bulletin.
Thane is a Category 1 cyclonic storm on a scale that goes up to the most severe at Category 5. It is predicted to weaken after reaching land.
India's cyclone season generally lasts from April to December with severe storms often causing dozens of deaths, evacuations of tens of thousands of people from low-lying villages and widespread crop and property damage.
In 1999, a "super-cyclone" battered the coast of the eastern state of Orissa for 30 hours with wind speeds reaching 300 kph (186 mph). It killed 10,000 people.
Maritime authorities hoisted flags indicating danger signal 10 -- the maximum warning level -- in ports along Tamil Nadu's coast, including Chennai, the state capital, instructing large ships to venture out to sea, as they would be safer there.
CROP DAMAGES EXPECTED
The Meteorological Department said the storm was expected to bring a surge in the sea of up to 1.5 meters (5 ft) above normal tides, which would flood low-lying areas of Chennai and other towns on the coast.
Thane is also predicted to hit the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh, and would damage homes, power and communication lines and flood roads, the department said.
Authorities in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry said they had deployed emergency teams and prepared relief centers but no people had been moved from their homes.
"Thirteen emergency teams are already in place to carry out evacuations at short notice," said Deepak Kumar, district commissioner of Pondicherry, adding that officials were watching to see if the storm intensified.
The weather department also recommended farmers take measures to protect crops. The storm was expected to damage the rice, groundnut and maize crops in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, it said in a bulletin at 5.30 p.m. (1200 GMT).
Andhra Pradesh is the biggest producer of corn in India and the second-biggest producer of rice and groundnut. Tamil Nadu is not a main producer.
(AlertNet is a global humanitarian news service run by Thomson Reuters Foundation. Visit www.trust.org/alertnet)
(Additional reporting by Mayank Bhardwaj in New Delhi; Writing by Nita Bhalla; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Robert Birsel)