Even as a furious tropical cyclonic storm 'Laila' in the Bay of Bengal was gusting forward, the Andhra Pradesh coast has started experiencing gale winds and heavy rains.
The Cyclone Warning Centre in Visakhapatanam has said the cyclonic storm lay centered over southwest Bay of Bengal, 480 km south east of Visakhapatanam, and was likely to cross the coast between Machlipatanam and Kakinada on Thursday morning.
Authorities said the cyclone was moving in the west-northwest direction at a speed of 20 km per hour. The wind speed has been up to 130 km per hour near the eye of the storm.
Laila has been billed as the worst tropical cyclone in 14 years. A cyclone in 1996 had battered the East and West Godavari districts.
The Union home ministry has issued alerts for Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu in view of the impending cyclone.
The centre has also ordered that four companies of the National Disaster Response Force be moved to vulnerable areas of coastal Andhra Pradesh.
Cautionary signal No 7 was hoisted at the ports of Visakhapatanam, Kakinada, Machlipatanam, Vodarevu and Nizampatanam indicating the highest level of threat from the storm.
Heavy rains along with gale winds up to a speed of 65 to 75 km per hour have already started lashing Visakhapatanam, East and West Godavari and Krishna districts.
The administration has begun evacuating people from low-lying areas along the coast. Officials said at least 5,000 people had been evacuated from Srikakulam, Vizianagaram,Visakhapatanam, East and West Godavari districts so far.
Chief Minister K Rosaiah has directed officials of the nine coastal districts to take precautionary measures to prevent loss of life, and also keep helicopters ready for rescue operations.
The Indian Meteorological Department said the gale wind speed was likely to reach 139 km per hour by Wednesday night and a maximum speed of 167 km per hour as the st.
The IMD has forecast widespread rains with heavy to very heavy rainfall for the region in 24 hours.
The port city of Visakhapatanam has been witnessing rains since Tuesday night and normal life has been disrupted.
The Indian Navy has been put on alert and the army will be sought if necessary. The Andhra cabinet has kept aside six helicopters for rescue and relief operations.
The weather bureau has warned that sea waves as high as 2.5 meters would lash the coast during the storm. The cyclone has a sustained wind of 102 km per hour presently and waves along Andhra's caosts have been as high as 4.6 metres.
Oil refineries have suspended drilling work in the Krishna-Godavari basin off the coast in East Godavari ditrict. The Bay of Bengal region has the biggest offshore natural gas field in the country.