By Jatindra Dash

VISAKHAPATNAM India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Cyclone Hudhud powered its way inland over eastern India on Monday, leaving a swathe of destruction but the loss of life appeared limited after tens of thousands of people sought safety in storm shelters, aid workers and officials said.

Packing wind speeds of up to 195 kph (over 120 mph), Hudhud hammered the coasts of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha states on Sunday, killing at least eight people and causing widespread devastation.

In the port city of Visakhapatnam, which is home to two million people, wreckage was strewn everywhere. The storm uprooted trees, tore sign boards off buildings, snapped telecom and power lines and ripped roofs and walls from scores of homes.

"I saw the wind blow huge sign boards and water tanks and make them swirl and fly through the air before they came crashing down," said Narayana, cleaning up debris in front of his house, the roof and front wall of which had been torn off.

"It is the first time I have seen such a horrific situation in Visakhapatnam."

By first light, as the storm weakened, residents were out on the streets surveying the damage, taking pictures on their phones of electricity poles which had been bent by the gusts, and buildings with shattered windows.

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.

Government workers fanned out across the city, and began removing fallen trees which had blocked roads and some shops and government offices re-opened despite erratic electricity and phone services. Schools and colleges remained closed.



Authorities in Visakhapatnam, locally known as Vizag, said they were sending out teams across coastal districts to assess the damage and needs of people who had been hit by the storm.

The defense ministry said four naval ships were ready to sail to the coast, carrying relief material for 5,000 people, and about 24 diving teams deployed in and around Vizag for relief operations.

Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh N. Chandrababa Naidu, who is expected to visit Visakhapatnam on Monday, said all possible support would be given to those affected - this would include monetary compensation to people with damaged homes.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted that 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.

The 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 ripped apart or swept away by storm surges, inhabitants waited for relief materials.

"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 Belinda Goldsmith)