October 11, 2013 10:40 am
Hurricane Phailin is set to be the strongest storm to ever come roaring out of the Indian Ocean. Phailin (pie-leen)—Thai for sapphire—is a massive storm in both strength and size. The U.S. typhoon forecasting centre is predicting Phailin to hit as a Category 5 hurricane with winds peaking at more than 195 miles per hour. Phailin is nearly 1550 miles across, says meteorologist Eric Holthaus. For reference, tropical storm Sandy was 700 miles across. “Some forecasters likened its size and intensity to that of hurricane Katrina, which devastated the U.S. Gulf coast and New Orleans in 2005,” says Reuters.
The storm is huge. But it gets worse. According to Louisiana State University climatologist Hal Needham, Phailin is going to hit an area known for its notoriously bad storm surge.
The Bay of Bengal has been the home of the most catastrophic storm surge disasters on the planet. This basin, which is relatively small by global comparison, has experienced 15 of the 21 tropical cyclones that have killed at least 5,000 people. Storm surge is the main reason for these high fatality totals. In an 11-year period from 1960-1970, this basin observed seven storm surge events that exceeded the height of Hurricane Katrina’s surge in 2005. Storm surges generated from tropical cyclones have killed as many as 300,000 people in 1737 and again in 1970.
Phailin, being potentially the biggest storm ever seen in the Bay of Bengal, will be bad.
“The storm’s growth, both in size and in strength, is expected to continue until landfall,” says Eric Holthaus for Quartz.
Should the storm maintain its current strength—or strengthen even further—India could be facing a true catastrophe. A worst case scenario would have Phailin tracking slightly eastward of its current forecasted track, toward Kolkata and the Ganges Delta of Bangladesh, which is home to tens of millions of people living just a few meters above sea level.
So far 260,000 people have evacuated, with more expected to follow as the storm comes closer to making landfall on Saturday afternoon.
More from Smithsonian.com:
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.