BEHRAMPUR, India — Mass evacuations spared India the widespread deaths many had feared from a powerful cyclone that roared ashore over the weekend, officials said Sunday, as the country sorted through the wreckage of flooded towns, tangled power lines and tens of thousands of destroyed thatch homes.
Cyclone Phailin, the strongest storm to hit India in more than a decade, destroyed hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of crops, but more than 20 hours after it made landfall in Orissa state on the country's east coast, authorities said they knew of only 17 fatalities.
The final death toll is expected to climb further as officials reach areas of the cyclone-battered coast that remain isolated by downed communication links and blocked roads, but the evacuation of nearly 1 million people appeared to have saved many lives.
"Damage to property is extensive," said Amitabh Thakur, the top police officer in the Orissa district worst-hit by the cyclone. "But few lives have been lost," he said, crediting the mass evacuations.
On the highway to the seaside city of Gopalpur, where the storm made landfall early Saturday night, two tractor-trailers with shattered windshields were lying on their sides, while a hotel nearby was in tatters, with tables and chairs strewn about.
"We were terrified," A-1 Hotel owner Mihar Ranjan said of himself and 14 other people who had been huddling inside when the wind ripped the tin roof off the building.
On Sunday, Gopalpur's power lines sagged nearly to the ground and a strong surf churned off the coast. But some shops were opened, doing brisk business selling bottled drinks and snacks, and locals expressed relief that the damage wasn't worse.
A mermaid statue remained standing on Gopalpur's boardwalk, where most decorative street lamps still stood along with most of the city's buildings.
"Everyone feels very lucky," said Prabhati Das, a 40-year-old woman who came from the town of Behrampur, about 7 miles inland, to see the aftermath at the coast.
A cargo ship carrying iron ore, the MV Bingo, sank Saturday as the cyclone barreled through the Bay of Bengal, and its crew of 18 — including 17 Chinese and one Indonesian — went missing for a day, coast guard officials said. They were being rescued Sunday evening after their lifeboat was found about 115 miles off the Indian coast, coast guard Commandant Sharad Matri said.
Phailin weakened significantly after making landfall as a Category 4 storm, with sustained winds of up to 131 miles per hour, according to Indian meteorologists. Those numbers were slightly lower than the last advisory issued by the U.S. Navy's Hawaii-based Joint Typhoon Warning Center, which reported maximum sustained winds of about 138 mph and gusts up to 167 mph four hours before the storm hit land.
Midday on Sunday, some areas reported little more than breezy drizzles, with winds in some areas blowing at 100 mph. Meteorologists warned that Orissa and other states in the storm's path would face heavy rains, strong winds and rough seas for several more hours.
"Its intensity is still strong, but after crossing the coast it has weakened considerably," Sharat Sahu, a top official with the Indian Meteorological Dept. in Orissa, told reporters.
Indian officials spoke dismissively of American forecasters who earlier had warned of a record-breaking cyclone that would drive a massive wall of water — perhaps as large as 30 feet high — into the coastline.
"They have been issuing warnings, and we have been contradicting them," said L.S. Rathore, director-general of the Indian Meteorological Department. "That is all that I want to say."
Predicting how massive storms will develop is difficult in the Bay of Bengal, where there are no tidal gauges, ocean buoys or aircraft flying into storms to measure winds directly. Instead, both U.S. and Indian meteorologists rely on satellite imagery to assess a storm's strength and path.
Nearly 1 million people were evacuated from the coast ahead of Phailin, including more than 870,000 in Orissa and more than 100,000 in neighboring Andhra Pradesh.