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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 debris of flooded towns 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 17 fatalities.
The final death toll is expected to climb as officials reach areas of the 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 lie on their sides, with a hotel nearby in tatters.
“We were terrified,” A-1 Hotel owner Mihar Ranjan said of himself and 14 other people who had huddled 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 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.
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.
Phailin weakened significantly after making landfall as a Category 4 storm, with sustained winds of up to 131 mph, according to Indian meteorologists.
Midday 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.
The Indian government had faced immense public criticism after its slow response to deadly floods and mudslides in June in the northern state of Uttarakhand, where more than 6,000 people were killed.
But officials took few chances with Phailin, especially given memories of a 1999 Orissa cyclone that devastated the coastline and left at least 10,000 people dead.
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.