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Indians say cyclone evacuation kept them alive

  • An Indian couple repair their home at the cyclone affected Haripur village in Ganjam district, Orissa state, India, Monday, Oct. 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Biswaranjan Rout)

PODAMPETTA, India — Agya Amma's house in this seaside village was flattened by the cyclone that roared in from the Bay of Bengal with torrential rains and winds topping 200 kilometers (131 miles) per hour. But the fact that she was still here on Monday, surveying the pile of twisted wood and shredded thatch that had been her home, was proof that this was a different kind of disaster for India.

Unlike past storms that have lashed India's eastern coast, Cyclone Phailin did not extract a heavy human toll, thanks to a massive and improbable evacuation effort that effectively moved nearly 1 million residents of one of India's poorest regions out of the storm's path and into government shelters.

By Monday, only 25 people had been reported killed, even though tens of thousands of homes were destroyed. The successful evacuation effort was earning rare praise for a country known for large-scale disasters that have caused high death tolls. In 1999, a cyclone that struck the same coast killed about 10,000 people, while more than 6,000 were killed in June by flooding and mudslides in another Indian state, Uttarakhand.

"If we had stayed here, everyone in the village would be dead," said Amma, a 55-year-old fisherwoman. "I consider myself lucky to be alive."

Despite the comparatively low number of deaths, Phailin still dealt its share of misery, as hundreds of thousands of coastal residents found themselves huddling in shelters, their homes flattened and crops destroyed by the most powerful storm to hit India in more than a decade.

At least four days before the cyclone hit, police in the coastal states of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh began traveling through villages to warn residents of the coming storm and urge them to go to government shelters set up in schools and other concrete buildings.

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