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UPDATE 4-India evacuating 1.2 million people as cyclone menaces east coast

Jatindra Dash and Mayank Bhardwaj

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BHUBANESHWAR, India/NEW DELHI, May 2 (Reuters) - India has accelerated efforts to evacuate more than a million people along its northeast coastline as a cyclone intensifies ahead of landfall on Friday, with thousand of villagers piling household possessions on to trucks before fleeing their homes.

Severe cyclonic storm Fani was churning up the Bay of Bengal about 275 km (171 miles) south-southwest of the Hindu temple town of Puri where special trains were put on to evacuate tourists and the beaches were empty.

In total, about 1.2 million people are expected to be evacuated from low-lying areas of 15 districts in the eastern state of Odisha to cyclone shelters, schools and other buildings, authorities said. More than 800,000 have left so far.

"We are maximising efforts at all levels for evacuation," Odisha's Special Relief Commissioner Bishnupada Sethi told Reuters.

Fani was generating maximum sustained winds of 170-180 km (105-111 miles) per hour, the state-run India Meteorological Department (IMD) said. Cyclone tracker Tropical Storm Risk rated Fani category 4 storm, a notch below the worst level.

The cyclone will make landfall before Friday afternoon, the IMD said.

The navy has deployed seven warships and has six planes and seven helicopters on standby along with divers, rubber boats, medical teams and relief materials.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted that the federal government will provide all possible assistance.

Authorities have also shut down operations at Paradip, Dhamra and Visakhapatnam ports.

In Paradip, television footage showed residents piling bicycles, sewing machines and gas cylinders on to small trucks and leaving for any of nearly 900 shelters supplied with food, water and medicines.

Odisha state government has deployed hundreds of disaster management personnel, closed schools and colleges and asked doctors and other health officials not to go on leave until May 15.

India's cyclone season can last from April to December, when severe storms batter coastal cities and cause widespread deaths and damage to crops and property in both India and neighbouring Bangladesh.

Technological advancements have helped meteorologists to predict weather patterns well in advance, giving authorities more time to prepare.

In 1999, a super-cyclone battered the coast of Odisha for 30 hours, killing 10,000 people. A mass evacuation of nearly a million people saved thousands of lives in 2013.

In a Tweet, Indian airline Vistara, a joint venture of India's Tata Sons and Singapore Airlines Ltd, said it would waive cancellation charges for flights to Odisha's capital, Bhubaneswar, and Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, until Sunday.

Kolkata airport will be shut from 2130 hrs local time on Friday till 1800 hrs on Saturday while Bhubaneswar airport will be shut on Friday.

IndiGo Airlines , the countrys largest domestic carrier, said it had cancelled flights to and from Bhubaneswar on Friday. GoAir in a Tweet said it would waive cancellation charges for flights to Bhubaneswar, Kolkata and Ranchi for travel till May 5.

Indian Oil Corp, the country's top refiner, said its 300,000 barrels per day (bpd) Paradip refinery in Odisha state did not need to shut down for now.

An executive at Reliance Industries Ltd, which operates an oil and gas block off the east coast, said its operations had not been affected. India's National Aluminium Co Ltd said there was no need to halt operations.

State-run power company NTPC Ltd has no plans to shut the 3000-megawatt Talcher power plant in Odisha, its head of operations Prakash Tiwari said. "The power plant will be running as usual, should something happen we are prepared for any eventuality." (Additional reporting by Subrata Nagchoudhury in KOLKATA; Devjoyot Ghoshal, Neha Dasgupta and Nidhi Verma in NEW DELHI; Promit Mukherjee in MUMBAI; Editing by Nick Macfie and Toby Chopra)