By Jatindra Dash
VISAKHAPATNAM India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The death toll from a powerful cyclone which battered India's eastern coastline rose to 24 on Monday, as the storm weakened and moved inland, leaving a swathe of destruction and triggering fears heavy rains would bring flash floods.
Packing wind speeds of up to 195 kph (over 120 mph), cyclone Hudhud hammered the coasts of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha states on Sunday, forcing tens of thousands of coastal inhabitants to seek safety in storm shelters.
In the port city of Visakhapatnam, home to two million people, government workers began removing uprooted trees which had blocked roads, restoring snapped power and telecoms lines and clearing up debris including sign boards and corrugated iron roofs which had been ripped off buildings by the strong gusts.
"I do not know how many days it will take to restore my business. I have lost everything," said Heusikeswa Rao, a trader in Visakhapatnam, as he tried to gather the pieces of wood and metal which once formed his stall.
Huge lines were seen at the few petrol stations which reopened after a two-day closure as people carrying jerry cans jostled to get fuel which was in short supply. Residents also resorted to panic buying items such as milk, candles and kerosene in some places.
Few shops were open and schools and many offices were closed due to poor telecoms and no power for the second day in a row.
Officials in Andhra Pradesh, which reported 21 deaths, said initial surveys found that thousands of houses had been damaged and there was widespread destruction to banana, sugarcane and rice crops in the districts of Visakhapatnam, Srikakulam, East Godavari and Vijaynagaram.
Tens of thousands of people spent a third night in cyclone shelters due to damage to their home or a lack of food or clean drinking water in their villages, officials said.
Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh N. Chandrababu Naidu, who visited Visakhapatnam on Monday, said he was fully confident that response to the disaster would be quick.
"Visakhapatnam is a place I like very much. But, it is painful to see the city this way today," Naidu told reporters.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he would visit the area on Tuesday. "Have been constantly taking updates on Cyclone Hudhud ... Will visit Visakhapatnam tomorrow and take stock of the situation," Modi tweeted.
Authorities in Visakhapatnam, locally known as Vizag, said 19 helicopters had been dispatched to drop food and water packets to affected villages. Four naval ships were also being readied to sail to the coast, carrying relief material for 5,000 people, and four more ships were on standby if required.
The relatively low death toll reported so far followed an operation to evacuate more than 150,000 people to minimize the risk to lives from Hudhud - similar in size and power to cyclone Phailin that struck the area exactly a year ago.
According to India's weather office, Hudhud has weakened into a deep depression but is expected to dump heavy rains in northern and northeastern India and, eventually, snow when it reaches the Himalayan mountains.
Aid workers warned the rains were likely to inundate large tracts of farmland, comparing it to Phailin's incessant rains last year which caused major rivers and tributaries to overflow, submerging villages and stranding hundreds of thousands of people for days after the cyclone had passed.
In the coastal fishing village of Mangamaripeta, 25 km (15 miles) from Visakhapatnam, where scores of thatched homes had been swept away by storm surges, inhabitants waited for aid.
"We do not know how we manage for the next few days," said N. Bangaramma, housewife and mother of three. "Our house was damaged. Whatever we had was washed away."
(Additional reporting by Malini Menon in New Delhi. Writing by Nita Bhalla, Editing by Katie Nguyen)