Cyclone Batsirai Blows Across Indian Ocean Toward Madagascar

ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar (AP) -- The full force of Cyclone Batsirai is forecast to hit Madagascar Saturday evening, according to weather officials.

The cyclone is gaining strength as it blows across the Indian Ocean, with gale-force winds reaching peaks of 235 kilometers (145 miles) per hour, according to the island's meteorology department.

"Following its slow and quite variable movement, the expected arrival of the eye is delayed until (Saturday) evening or at night," said the weather department in a statement.

Batsirai, which means help in the Shona language, is expected to inflict "significant and widespread damage, particularly flooding in the east, the southeast and the central highlands," said the statement.

As a precaution, 22,000 people have already been evacuated to gymnasiums, schools or churches, especially around Mananjary, on the east coast.

"The wind is getting stronger and there is a lot of rain. The sea is very rough. There are big waves that come down with a lot of force," Capt. Ravahalahy Heninjoa, commander of Mananjary's gendarmerie, said Saturday. "You can already feel the cyclone even if the eye has not yet touched the ground."

The winds have toppled many trees, and electricity has been cut since Friday night, he said.

Further inland, Antananarivo, the capital, experienced rains ahead of the cyclone.

Anticipating widespread destruction, most land and sea transport has been suspended on Madagascar, the world's fourth-largest island.

"Almost all regions of the island are at risk," the National Office for Risk and Disaster Management said, warning that the cyclone threatens nearly 600,000 of the island's 28 million people.