* At least 12 people killed by Cyclone Tauktae
* Expected to make landfall in Gujarat late Monday
* Compounds problems for authorities struggling with COVID
* Concern for welfare of rare Asiatic lions in Gujarat
* Two barges with over 400 people adrift near Mumbai (Updates with info on barges)
By Sumit Khanna
Ahmedabad, May 17 (Reuters) - Indian authorities on Monday moved nearly 150,000 people from their homes in the state of Gujarat to safety and shut ports and a major airport as the most powerful cyclone in more than two decades roared up the west coast.
Cyclone Tauktae killed at least 12 people and left a trail of destruction as it brushed past the coastal states of Kerala, Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra, the authorities said. It was set to make landfall in Gujarat late on Monday.
"This will be the most severe cyclone to hit Gujarat in at least 20 years. This can be compared with the 1998 cyclone that hit Kandla and inflicted heavy damage," state revenue secretary Pankaj Kumar told Reuters.
The 1998 cyclone killed at least 4,000 people and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. The latest cyclone piles pressure on local administrations already struggling with a high caseload of COVID-19 infections.
"This cyclone is a terrible double blow for millions of people in India whose families have been struck down by record COVID infections and deaths. Many families are barely staying afloat," said Udaya Regmi, South Asia head of Delegation, International Federation of Red Cross, in a statement on Monday.
Earlier on Monday India reported 281,386 new coronavirus infections over the last 24 hours..
Regmi said the potential impact of this "monster storm" was frightening, adding that the Indian Red Cross Emergency team was working with authorities and aiding evacuations.
The India Meteorological Department (IMD) categorized the storm, which formed in the Arabian Sea, as an "extremely severe" storm, upgrading it from the "very severe" category.
The financial hub of Mumbai was lashed with heavy rain and strong winds as Cyclone Tauktae headed north, forcing authorities to suspend operations at the city's airport and to close some main roads due to flooding.
Mumbai's urban rail system, one of the world's busiest, was also affected as tracks flooded. A Reuters witness saw trees uprooted and stranded cars and buses in the city.
Two barges with over 400 people on board have gone adrift near the Mumbai coastline and vessels have been sent to provide help, said the Ministry of Defence, Mumbai.
The cyclone brought gusts of up to 210 kmph that would put it on par with a Category 3 hurricane, rating it one level below the IMD's super cyclone category.
As well as the 12 deaths reported in Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka, 28 fishing boats were missing, a coastguard official told Reuters.
The Gujarat Maritime Board, the state's port regulator, directed hoisting of signals VIII to X, indicating great danger, at ports in the state. India's largest private port at Mundra suspended operations for the day.
Authorities also fretted about the state's Asiatic lions, an endangered species found only in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat where the cyclone is expected to inflict most damage.
"There are around 40 lions in some patches in coastal Saurashtra, and we are monitoring them. Some lions have already moved to higher grounds. We are keeping fingers crossed, and praying the lions will be safe," Shyamal Tikadar, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests in Gujarat, told Reuters.
Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani said all measures were being taken to deal with the situation.
"These are special circumstances. The administration is busy with the COVID-19 challenges, and is now gearing up to deal with the impact of the cyclone," said Rupani.
Gujarat and Mumbai both suspended their vaccination drives on Monday due to the cyclone. (Reporting by Sumit Khanna in Ahmedabad, Rajendra Jadhav and Aishwarya Nair in Mumbai; Writing by Nupur Anand; Editing by Euan Rocha, Robert Birsel, Gareth Jones)
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