Visualization of Cyclone Fani, approaching landfall in northeast India on Thursday morning local time. (Earth.nullschool.net)

(This report, first published on Tuesday, was updated Wednesday.)

Cyclone Fani, packing winds of 120 mph, is set to slam eastern India on Friday, bringing with it destructive winds, rain totals topping a foot and a potentially devastating storm surge.

The India Meteorological Department says Fani has strengthened into an “extremely severe cyclonic storm.”

AccuWeather reports more than 100 million people are in the path of the storm, whose winds are equivalent to a Category 3 hurricane. While called a cyclone, Fani is no different from hurricanes that strike the coastline of the United States.

Fani is crawling just east of due north at 7 mph, continuing to gain strength over the bath-warm seas in the Bay of Bengal. Water temperatures there range from the mid- to upper 80s, a few degrees above normal, which supports further intensification during the next day or so. As Fani approaches the coast, it is forecast to weaken slightly.

The Joint Typhoon Warning Center predicts Fani will make landfall Friday afternoon local time with peak winds close to their current intensity — around 115 mph.

The storm is expected to hit the heavily populated state of Odisha. Odisha, with a population exceeding 46 million, is known for its rich history and thousands of temples.


Track forecast for Cyclone Fani. (Joint Typhoon Warning Center)

The India Meteorological Department has hoisted a wind warning for Odisha, anticipating the “total destruction of thatched houses” and “extensive damage” to other structures.

This will pose major issues for neighborhoods near the beach in Puri, a city of 200,000, where a five-foot storm surge (or rise in water above normally dry land) is also expected. As the storm is still roughly 48 hours from landfall, its exact track remains uncertain. But if the eye of the storm tracks just west of Puri, the city could be ground zero for the worst of the wind and surge.

The bulk of Puri is high enough above sea level that those more than a few hundred yards inland will be immune to the ferocious waves. Farther north, however, it’s a different story. Tens of thousands of people from the Mahanadi River Delta to Kalibhanja Diha Island live less than 10 feet above sea level. A surge close to that high could be disastrous for dozens of impoverished rural communities, inundating homes and businesses.


(Google maps, adapted by Matthew Cappucci)

India’s Meteorological Department has advocated “extensive evacuation” from coastal areas, and the government ominously cautioned that the “flooding of escape routes” will prevent evacuation if residents wait too long. The Hindu Business Line reports a “massive evacuation operation” is underway.

Inland, the threat is less from coastal flooding but more from inland flooding. Rain totals of 8 to 12 inches will fall over a widespread swath that will include Odisha’s capital, Bhubaneswar. A heavy rainfall warning is in effect for potential “heavy to very heavy rainfall at a few places with isolated extremely heavy rainfall.”

Eastern India is accustomed to monsoonal moisture this time of year — but is not equipped to handle a month’s worth of precipitation coming down in a few hours. In addition to sparking urban flood concerns in Bhubaneswar proper, excessive runoff could overwhelm the Mahanadi and Kuakhai rivers. That may cause flash flooding along their banks for rural communities surrounding Cuttack and Urali.

It’s not just homes that will suffer — the local economy also could be severely affected. “Widespread damage to standing crops, plantations, orchards,” per forecasts from the India Meteorological Department, could grind local commerce to a halt. The average per capita income in Odisha is less than $1,000 per year.

The storm could also cause serious effects in Bangladesh, pushing a substantial storm surge over its low-lying coast and unloading flood rains.

Many of the deadliest cyclones ever recorded have struck coasts along the Bay of Bengal in densely populated, low-lying zones vulnerable to storm surge, flimsy infrastructure and — in many instances — lack of early storm warnings and evacuation efforts.

A Category 5-equivalent cyclone devastated Odisha in 1999, unleashing a 20-foot-plus storm surge and 160 mph winds. That storm was blamed for more than 10,000 deaths.

However, when Cyclone Phailin slammed Odisha in October 2013, the toll was not nearly as severe, thanks to improved forecasting and evacuation efforts; 1.2 million people were evacuated ahead of that storm. Dozens, rather than thousands, died.

On Tuesday, Fani became the strongest storm in the north Indian Ocean this early in the year since Cyclone Nargis in 2008. Nargis was blamed for more than 100,000 deaths in Myanmar.