Cyclone Fani roared ashore in eastern India on Friday, battering densely-populated Odisha state with 125-mile-per-hour winds and rain before weakening and taking aim at the sprawling metropolis of Kolkata. A herculean evacuation effort in recent days saw more than 1 million people flee the low-lying coastal areas, but one official said the storm still left at least two people dead as it came ashore.
Odisha state disaster relief coordinator Bishnupada Sethi told French news agency AFP that a man died of a heart attack in a shelter and a second person "went out in the storm despite our warnings and died because a tree fell on him." India's central government did not immediately confirm any fatalities.
The India Meteorological Department said the "extremely severe" cyclone struck Odisha at about 8 a.m. on Friday morning, by which time almost 1.2 million people had been evacuated to higher ground.
It was downgraded later Friday from "extremely severe" to "very severe," and the Meteorological Department said it was forecast to weaken further into a "severe" cyclone as it moved northeast toward Kolkata.
Fani is the strongest cyclone to hit India's coast since a storm in 1999 left more than 10,000 people dead. Advances in early warning systems and evacuation planning meant the new disaster was likely to claim far fewer lives, but it could still bring widespread flooding that damages infrastructure and poses a significant human health risk.
Follow along below for the latest updates on the storm:
Huge relief effort, new death reported
India's military forces had already mobilized for a huge relief effort by the time the storm hit the coast on Friday, with at least a dozen ships and 14 aircraft positioned to distribute aid materials.
Video posted by the Coast Guard showed troops loading supplies onto helicopters aboard one of the service's six deployed vessels, off the coast of Odisha, to be ferried to displaced victims in the hard-hit state.
The central government had still not confirmed any deaths from the storm by Friday afternoon, but Indian news agency PTI cited officials as confirming a total of three deaths, including the two reported earlier by AFP. The third death was also reported in Odisha.
Police in Odisha posted many photos to their Twitter accounts showing rescuers assisting and treating people with minor injuries attributed to the storm.
Power out, trees toppled
India's Ministry of Home Affairs said in a statement that power and communication lines were down in the district of Puri, on Odisha state's coast where the storm first made landfall.
Puri's beaches are popular with tourists.
Sitanshu Kar, a spokesman for India's national government, tweeted video from Bhubaneshwar, an ancient city just north and inland from Puri, that showed strong winds whipping trees and scattering downed limbs and other debris around a hospital in the city.
One video showed a roof that appeared to cover a courtyard area at the hospital being lifted off by the wind gusts.
Following the storm's path to the north, police in the city of Cuttack tweeted photos and video of entire rows of large trees that were toppled by the storm, and workers hurrying to clear the roads of debris to let emergency crews operate.
Weakening, heading northeast
Fani was expected to hit West Bengal state at about 4 p.m. local time (6:30 a.m. Eastern) as a "severe" cyclone, with winds gusting to about 70 mph and heavy rain.
The eye of the storm was forecast to hit the city, which has a population of about 4.5 million, at midnight.
By the time the storm reaches Bangladesh early on Saturday, forecasters said the sustained wind speeds were likely to have dropped to about 40 mph.
Kolkata airport to close
As Fani darkened the skies over Kolkata and rain began to pick up, officials decided to move forward the closure of the city's international airport by three hours.
Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport would be shuttered from 6:30 p.m. local time (9 a.m. Eastern).