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Massive Cyclone Phailin nears India eastern seaboard

Thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes on the east coast of India as the strongest cyclone in more than a decade comes closer. Widespread damage is anticipated.

Officials have canceled holy day celebrations and stockpiled emergency supplies in coastal Orissa and Andhra Pradesh states, as forecasters anticipate that Cyclone Phailin is to hit the region Saturday evening.

Authorities have evacuated 40,000 people from 40 villages to government-run shelters, schools and buildings in five districts of Orissa state, according to Surya Narayan Patra, the state revenue and disaster management minister.

Patra said officials plan to take another 100,000 people to safer areas before the cyclone hits. "No one will be allowed to stay in mud and thatched houses in the coastal areas," he said. The Indian air force has four transport planes and 18 helicopters being kept ready for relief operations in the region.

Satellite images of the storm showed it reaching nearly 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) from the east coast of India to the west coast of Myanmar, an area about the size of France.

The Indian Meteorological Department warned that Phailin was a "very severe cyclonic storm" that was expected to hit with maximum sustained winds of 210-220 kilometers (130-135 miles) per hour. The US Navy Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Hawaii forecast maximum sustained winds of 269 kilometers (167 miles) per hour with gusts up to 315 kilometers (196 miles) per hour.

University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy said Phailin is near the size of 2005's Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,200 people and caused devastating flooding in New Orleans.

jm/jr (AP, AFP)