The storm rapidly intensified Wednesday into Thursday, its peak winds hitting 155 mph. In the Bay of Bengal, these winds were the strongest so early in the year since the Bangladesh cyclone of 1991 and the sixth-strongest on record. Such winds were just 2 mph shy of a Category 5 hurricane.
Early Friday morning local time, the storm’s satellite and radar appearance suggested it had lost a bit of strength as it approached the coast. Even so the India Meteorological Department projected its winds would cause the “total destruction of thatched houses” and “extensive damage” to other structures. As the storm tracks inland, its winds are forecast to gradually weaken and the India Meteorological Department had downgraded Fani from an “extremely severe” cyclonic storm to “very severe."
More than 100 million people are in the path of the storm, and India’s government mobilized a massive evacuation effort, probably the largest in its history, according to the Times of India.
Officials had attempted to evacuate more than a million people in the state of Odisha.
The India Meteorological Department projected the storm surge to push ocean water about five feet (1.5 meters) above normally dry land near the coast. Hal Needham, a U.S. storm surge expert, tweeted that number could climb as high as eight feet (2.5 meters), with towering waves on top of that.
Weather Underground’s Bob Henson wrote the surge could be “catastrophic” near and east of Puri. “Because of the geography of the Bay of Bengal, which funnels and concentrates storm surge toward its north end, dangerous surge from Fani may extend to the West Bengal coast, potentially affecting areas from the coast toward Kolkata (metro area 14 million)," he wrote.
Inland, the threat is less from coastal flooding but more from inland flooding. Widespread rainfall totals of at least three to six inches are likely, with isolated double-digit amounts. A heavy rainfall warning is in effect for potential “heavy to very heavy rainfall at a few places with isolated extremely heavy rainfall,” according to the India Meteorological Department.
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 that have flimsy infrastructure and — in many instances — suffer from a 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.
Matthew Cappucci contributed to this report.