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'Catastrophic' Cyclone Phailin heads for landfall in India

5:24 PM, Oct 11, 2013   |    comments
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A satellite image from Friday morning, Oct. 11, shows Cyclone Phailin spinning just off the Indian east coast.
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(USA TODAY) -- A monstrous and potentially catastrophic cyclone is taking aim on India, with sustained winds estimated at about 161 mph as of Friday, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center. This is equivalent to a Category 5 hurricane.

Gusts are as high as 195 mph. It's close to being the strongest storm ever recorded in the Indian Ocean.

The storm (named Phailin) is so large it fills nearly the entire Bay of Bengal, which is part of the Indian Ocean.

Officials ordered at least 40,000 coastal villagers to flee their homes Friday, and authorities plan to take another 100,000 people to safer areas before the cyclone hits.

The "effects to the Indian coast ... in terms of surge will be catastrophic, with the potential to erase most houses, crops and infrastructure," reported WeatherBell meteorologist Ryan Maue on his Twitter account.

Phailin is likely to be the strongest tropical cyclone to affect India in 14 years, when a fierce cyclone hit the east coast of India, killing almost 10,000 people, according to meteorologist Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground.

The weather models meteorologists use to forecast storms are in tight agreement that Phailin will track northwest into the northeast coast of India, with landfall expected to occur Saturday, Masters said.

The storm should hit in India's Orissa state, reported the typhoon warning center. The state has a population of close to 40 million people, the Odisha government website noted, and has about 700 people per square mile.

Cyclones form in the Indian Ocean, and are the same type of storm as a hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean and a typhoon in the western Pacific. They are all known by the umbrella term "tropical cyclones."

Cyclones that form in the Bay of Bengal can be among the deadliest natural catastrophes in the world. Twenty-six of the thirty-five deadliest tropical cyclones in world history have been Bay of Bengal storms, according to Masters.

In fact, during the past two centuries, 42% of Earth's deaths from tropical cyclones have occurred in Bangladesh, and 27% have occurred in India, Masters reports.

A single cyclone that hit Bangeldesh in 1970 killed between 300,000 and 500,000 people.

"Phailin" means "sapphire" in the Thai language.