'It looks so devastating': India wakes to scene of destruction after huge cyclone slams coast

Cyclone Phailin's damage just beginning to be assessed 2:08

Residents of eastern India awoke to scenes of destruction on Sunday, after huge Cyclone Phailin slammed into the eastern coastline, uprooting trees, destroying homes and cutting power and water supplies to swathes of the region.

A crowd runs for cover after a cyclone warning at Gopalpur beach in Odisha, India, Saturday. Hundreds of thousands living along India's eastern coastline took shelter from the massive and powerful cyclone Phailin. AP

“It looks so devastating, I could see all roads blocked with uprooted tree and response teams clearing the roads,” wrote Kirti Mishra, operations manager at Catholic Relief Services in the state of Odisha. “Houses made of mud and bamboo are worst hit, slums in the town are mostly affected, their houses have completely collapsed and roofs are blown away.”

“We could not make any phone calls as all mobile networks gradually went off. There is no power or water supplies,” she added.

Despite Phailin’s power and size -- it was the strongest storm to hit the country in almost 15 years -- loss of life appeared limited after the more than half-a-million people left home and traveled to shelters. Seven people died in the hours before the storm made landfall, according to the state of Odisha.

The low number of casualties stands in contrast to the 10,000 killed by Odisha's last big cyclone in 1999.

Winds of more than 125 mph buffeted the coast, but the storm lost momentum as it headed inland. It was expected to dissipate within about 36 hours.

Although the storm was weakening, international aid group Oxfam said the next few hours remained crucial for the tens of thousands of stuck in the middle of one what it called one of “India's largest natural disasters.” The major challenge was to clear debris and to quickly restore communications, Oxfam said in an email.

Authorities cancelled the holidays of civil servants during the popular Hindu Dussehra festival, deployed disaster response teams with heavy equipment as well as helicopters and boats for rescue and relief operations. 

Officials’ preparation ahead of the storm garnered the praise of John Shumlansky country representive for Catholic Relief Services, who spoke to NBC News over the telephone.

"The government did a really good job on this, bringing people together a few days beforehand," he said.

Katrina-like storm threatens 12 million 2:32

As there are floods in India every year, CRS pre-positions supplies in at-risk areas.

"We purchase tarpaulins, ropes, buckets, water purifying tablets. This time we brought a whole bunch more in advance," Shumlansky said.

Roads in the affected areas are cut off until government forces were able to clear them, he added. The charity had been unable to assess which areas had been hardest hit but they people were already in shelters, which gave aid agencies more time to reach them.

Reuters contributed to this report.