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Srikakulam, India (AFP) Oct 12, 2013
As a crowd of Indian youths frolicked in the rising surf, fisherman Tonka Rao worked frantically to prevent Cyclone Phailin from destroying his livelihood.
"This boat cost me 400,000 rupees ($6,500)," the 60-year-old said as he lashed his pride and joy to a tilting palm tree on a beach in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. "I don't want to lose it."
While authorities mobilised Saturday to evacuate half a million people from Phailin's path, many villagers were caught between the desire to safeguard their families and to protect their possessions.
The cyclone, the biggest to threaten India in 14 years, is expected to leave a trail of destruction along a swathe of impoverished coastline in Andhra Pradesh and neighbouring Orissa.
The east coast, which its sandy beaches shaded by palm trees, is a famed spot for sighting dolphins and Olive Ridley turtles, which come in droves for spectacular mass nestings.
The rough waves also offer one of the best spots for surfing in the country.
But with nearby airports now closed and train services suspended, it is now sealed off and is the focus of a massive emergency operation.
With the authorities smarting from criticism of their reaction to devastating floods in the Himalayas in June, authorities have rushed to set up shelters while the air force has flown in emergency aid.
The National Disaster Response Force said it had moved in 45 separate teams into Orissa and Andhra Pradesh where they will join the armed forces who have been asked to help with rescue and reconstruction efforts.
"They have boats, they have cutters, they can move trees, they have ropes, and they are highly-trained in skills like deep-diving and so on," inspector general of the NDRF, Sandeep Rai Rathore, told AFP by phone.
The Air Force deployed its latest acquisition for the first time, the giant US-made C-17 transporter, which flew into Orissa state capital Bhubaneswar on Saturday morning along with other planes with medical supplies and rations on board.
Ahead of the arrival of Phailin, coastal residents could be seen packed by the dozen into open-roofed trucks, rickshaws and buses, leaving behind their possessions as they headed inland.
Local officials and volunteers wandered around with loud speakers ordering everyone to seek shelter and, as the winds picked up, began clearly debris and cutting up trees which blew onto roads.
Inside public buildings, volunteers served rice and lentil curry from huge steel pans as families queued for free food clutching plastic plates.
A cyclone in the same region killed more than 8,000 people in 1999, and also spelled catastrophe for local farmers.
Waterways were contaminated by rotting bodies of people and livestock in Orissa. The adulteration of drinking wells with saltwater and the contamination of other sources led to rampant gastroenteritis.
Contamination of rice paddies also meant farmers near the coast waited several years before the yield from their fields returned to normal.
A government report put the number of livestock killed at 445,000 while trees producing cash crops like cashews and coconuts were torn from the ground.
Puri, one of the areas expected to be worst hit by Phailin, is a major centre of rice production.
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