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Indian coastal residents say evacuation ahead of Cyclone Phailin kept them alive

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    Indian people ride past idols of Hindu gods and goddesses damaged during the Cyclone Phailin at a temporary worship venue in Berhampur in Ganjam district, Orissa state, India, Monday, Oct. 14, 2013. A mass government evacuation of nearly 1 million people spared India the widespread deaths many had feared from the powerful weekend cyclone, which destroyed hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of crops and tens of thousands of homes. (AP Photo/Bikas Das) (The Associated Press)

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    An Indian couple repair their home at the cyclone affected Haripur village in Ganjam district, Orissa state, India, Monday, Oct. 14, 2013. A mass government evacuation of nearly 1 million people spared India the widespread deaths many had feared from the powerful weekend cyclone Phailin, which destroyed hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of crops and tens of thousands of homes. (AP Photo/Biswaranjan Rout) (The Associated Press)

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    An Indian woman collects her belongings after returning to the cyclone-hit Haripur village on the Bay of Bengal coast in Ganjam district, Orissa state, India, Monday, Oct. 14, 2013. A mass government evacuation of nearly 1 million people spared India the widespread deaths many had feared from the powerful weekend cyclone, which destroyed hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of crops and tens of thousands of homes. (AP Photo/Biswaranjan Rout) (The Associated Press)

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    A young Indian girl swings as men clear debris after returning to their cyclone-hit home in Sonapur in Ganjam district, Orissa state, India, Monday, Oct. 14, 2013. A mass government evacuation of nearly 1 million people spared India the widespread deaths many had feared from the powerful weekend cyclone, which destroyed hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of crops and tens of thousands of homes. (AP Photo/Biswaranjan Rout) (The Associated Press)

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    An Indian man on a cycle crosses a street with uprooted trees fallen by Cyclone Phailin in Chhatrapur in Ganjam district, Orissa state, India, Monday, Oct. 14, 2013. A mass government evacuation of nearly 1 million people spared India the widespread deaths many had feared from the powerful weekend cyclone, which destroyed hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of crops and tens of thousands of homes. (AP Photo/Bikas Das) (The Associated Press)

Agya Amma surveyed the pile of twisted wood and shredded thatch that was her home in this seaside Indian village. Like most everything else in Podampetta, it was all but swept away when Cyclone Phailin roared in off the Bay of Bengal with a massive storm surge and winds topping 200 kilometers (131 miles) per hour.

Unlike past storms that have lashed India's eastern coast, however, Phailin did not extract a heavy human toll, thanks to the evacuation of nearly 1 million people in one of India's poorest regions. By Monday, only 25 people had been reported killed, although tens of thousands of homes were destroyed, and miles of coastline swamped.

"If we had stayed here, everyone in the village would be dead," said Amma, a 55-year-old fisherwoman. "I consider myself lucky to be alive."

The apparently successful evacuation effort was earning rare praise for a country known for large-scale disasters that have caused high death tolls in the past. But Phailin still dealt its share of misery, as hundreds of thousands of coastal residents found themselves huddling in shelters, their homes flattened and crops destroyed by the most powerful storm to hit India in more than a decade.

India began evacuating coastal residents at least four days before the cyclone hit. Amma and others from her tiny Podampetta village walked 1.5 kilometers (a mile) to the nearest government shelter and spent two nights waiting out the storm.

Like many in Orissa, Amma lost everything when Phailin hit.

"I have lost my house, my boat and my fishing nets," she said, hugging herself tightly near a beach strewn with storm debris — brightly painted broken boat hulls, chunks of concrete, and a piece of a plastic statue of the Hindu god Shiva.

A lake the size of a football field, formed when sea water surged ashore, cut across the main road out of Podampetta.

"There is nothing to eat, no place for me to stay," said Buchi Amma, 50, another Podampetta villager not related to Agya Amma. She and others have been sleeping temporarily in a nearby public building, but she has no idea how she and her husband will be able to buy food. "I only want life to get back to normal," she said, standing atop the concrete slabs of her shattered home.

Tens of thousands are newly homeless in Orissa and the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh. More than 500,000 hectares (1.2 million acres) of crops worth an estimated $395 million were damaged, according to Orissa's disaster minister, S.N. Patro.

Officials were still working Monday to clear roads and restore communications. The death toll of 25 was expected to rise as officials reach isolated areas along the cyclone-battered coast, though it is expected to remain far below the 10,000 killed in 1999 when another cyclone hit the same coast. More than 6,000 people were killed in June by flooding and mudslides in another Indian state, Uttarakhand.

Massive flooding that caused rivers in Orissa to overflow is creating a "critical" situation in several districts, according to P.K. Mohapatra, the state's head of relief operations. Authorities were air-dropping packages of food in the area, he said.

The Indian coast guard rescued 17 sailors whose cargo ship, the MV Bingo, sank during the cyclone, officials said. They were taken to a hospital in Kolkata for a check-up and are safe now, coast guard Commandant Rajendra Nath told the Press Trust of India news agency.

The Indian Ocean is a cyclone hot spot. Of the 35 deadliest storms in history, 27 have come through the Bay of Bengal — including the 1999 cyclone — and have landed in either India or Bangladesh.