Tully, Australia (AFP) Feb 3, 2011
Australia's biggest cyclone in a century shattered entire towns, pummelling the coast and churning across the country Thursday, terrifying locals but causing no confirmed fatalities.
Shaken residents emerged to check the damage after Severe Tropical Cyclone Yasi hit land at around midnight, packing winds of up to 290 kilometres (180 miles) per hour in a region still reeling from record floods.
Officials and locals said 90 percent of the main street in the small Queensland town of Tully, south of Cairns, had "extensive damage", while the coastal community of Cardwell also suffered "significant devastation".
"There are people now that have lost their homes, they lost their farms, they have lost their crops and they have lost their livelihoods," Queensland state premier Anna Bligh said.
Australia's deputy prime minister Wayne Swan said the damage was worse than he had expected. "It's a war zone," he said.
Regional hub Cairns, a centre for foreign tourists visiting the Great Barrier Reef, was spared Yasi's worst with problems largely restricted to fallen trees and minor damage to buildings.
No deaths or serious injuries were reported, although police said severed mobile phone networks were hampering efforts to check on two men who may be missing in the Cardwell area, and a third man was reported missing in Port Hinchinbrook.
Officials said good planning, strong public warnings and the fact that the storm veered suddenly southwards, away from Cairns, home to 122,000 people, saved the region from the catastrophic losses that had been feared.
But Bligh warned that a full picture was yet to emerge from a group of the worst-hit towns, where communications and road access remained difficult.
"It's a long way to go before I say we've dodged any bullets," she said.
Near the storm's "ground zero", families had cowered as roofs were ripped from homes, and 10,500 people huddled in evacuation centres as the storm raged with a roar like a jet engine.
"We were sitting at the kitchen table, we heard a ripping and off came the roof," said Scott Torrens, 37, who hid his three children beneath mattresses in the family living room.
In Cardwell, aerial pictures showed house after house with its roof shorn off, a shattered church also had its roof blown away, and the town was covered in mud left by surging ocean waters.
At nearby Port Hinchinbrook, dozens of luxury yachts swept from their berths were piled on each other like discarded toys, while the marina lay empty.
"There's so much damage it's just incredible," Tully cane farmer Vince Silvestro told AAP news agency. "When I woke up it looked like what it would have looked like in World World II or something if the city had been bombed."
Power blackouts darkened 177,000 homes across the region, including the city of Townsville, as emergency workers battled into the worst-hit towns, hampered by roads cut by floods and falling trees.
Despite the devastation, three babies were born during the tempest, including a little girl who was brought into the world in an evacuation centre. The baby's mother ruled out naming her "Yasi".
Swiss mining giant Xstrata evacuated its Mount Isa and Cloncurry mines as the storm headed further inland, after being downgraded to category one. But the coal ports of Hay Point and Dalrymple Bay reopened, as well as sugar harbour Mackay.
The Bureau of Meteorology later said the storm had weakened into a tropical depression as it travelled west across Queensland and an earlier cyclone warning had been cancelled although damaging winds were still possible.
About 75 percent of Australia's banana supply was estimated to have been affected, while damage to sugarcane crops was put at roughly Aus$500 million.
The storm's size and power dwarfed Cyclone Tracy, which hit the northern Australian city of Darwin in 1974, killing 71 people and flattening more than 90 percent of its houses.
It was also twice the size and far stronger than the category four Cyclone Larry that caused Aus$1.5 billion ($1.5 billion) of damage after hitting agricultural areas around Innisfail, just south of Cairns, in 2006.
The maximum-category five storm, reportedly large enough to cover most of the United States and with winds stronger than Hurricane Katrina, followed widespread flooding that left much of Queensland under water.
But Professor John Merson, head of the Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of New South Wales, warned more such disasters were likely as climate change warms up waters and fuels extreme weather.
There is a "complete lack of attention being given to the fact that we have a category five cyclone because we have climate change, yet we completely ignore this factor in the whole thing", he said.
earlier related report
Howling winds whipped up by Severe Tropical Cyclone Yasi with speeds of up to 290 kilometres (181 miles) per hour ripped off roofs, felled trees and cut power supplies as the storm crossed the Queensland coast.
Yasi, the worst storm to hit the area in a century, made landfall around midnight (1400 GMT), the Bureau of Meteorology said, after the cyclone was upgraded early in the day to a category five storm from category four.
"The large destructive core of Cyclone Yasi is starting to cross the coast between Innisfail and Cardwell, with a dangerous storm tide and battering waves to the south of the cyclone centre," the bureau said in a statement.
The storm made landfall near Mission Beach, which lies in the heart of a tourism and agriculture-rich area 180 kilometers south of Cairns, gateway to the Great Barrier Reef.
It was expected to rage at full force for up to four hours.
The stricken area's million residents were warned of an "extremely dangerous sea level rise" and "very destructive" winds accompanying Yasi's arrival, posing a severe threat to life.
State disaster coordinator Ian Stewart said deaths in Yasi's terrible path were "very likely".
"Unfortunately we are going to see significant destruction of buildings ... and it is very likely that we will see deaths occur. We have not hidden from that fact," he told Sky News.
Forecasters had earlier said that Yasi, the first category five storm to hit the area since 1918, was likely to be "more life-threatening than any (storm) experienced during recent generations."
State Premier Anna Bligh echoed the grim note of caution, urging residents to steel themselves for what dawn and the passing of the storm might reveal.
"Without doubt we are set to encounter scenes of devastation and heartbreak on an unprecedented scale," she said.
"It will take all of us and all of our strength to overcome this. The next 24 hours I think are going to be very, very tough ones for everybody."
More than 10,000 seaside residents and tourists were sheltering in 20 evacuation centres across the region -- some so packed that people were turned away -- while tens of thousands more were staying with family and friends.
Locals further from the water were told to batten down and prepare a "safe room" like a bathroom or a basement, with mattresses, pillows, a radio, food and water supplies to wait out the cyclone.
Some 4,000 soldiers were on standby to help residents when the storm passed, but until then, locals were on their own as it was too dangerous to deploy emergency personnel, officials said.
Yasi was shaping up as the worst cyclone in Australian history, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said, adding the nation was with Queenslanders as they faced "many, many dreadful, frightening hours" of destruction.
"This is probably the worst cyclone that our nation has ever seen," Gillard said.
Yasi was set to generate up to 700 millimetres (27.5 inches) of rain and huge and treacherous storm surges of between 2.3 and seven metres (eight to 23 feet) that are threatening to flood towns and tourist resorts.
The storm is so enormous that it would almost cover the United States or large parts of Europe, models published by News Ltd newspapers showed.
Usually bustling with holidaymakers and diving enthusiasts, the streets of tourist hub Cairns were eerily deserted as the wind uprooted trees and blew palm trees flat.
Bligh said grave fears were held for major power transmission lines in the region, never before tested at category five winds, warning that their failure would be a "catastrophic" issue for the entire state.
"We are planning for an aftermath that may see a catastrophic failure of essential services," she said.
The storm's size and power dwarfs Cyclone Tracy, which hit the northern Australian city of Darwin in 1974, killing 71 people and flattening more than 90 percent of its houses.
It is also twice the size and far stronger than the category four Cyclone Larry that caused Aus$1.5 billion ($1.5 billion) of damage after hitting agricultural areas around Innisfail, just south of Cairns, in 2006.
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Tully, Australia (AFP) Feb 3, 2011
As Cyclone Yasi's roaring winds and lashing rains closed in, Red Cross worker Noelene Byrne made a fortuitous last-minute decision to abandon her makeshift evacuation centre. The next thing she knew the building in Tully was "one mangled heap", Byrne told ABC radio. "Had I left people there, there would have been loss of life," she said. "The destruction there is just heartbreaking. It's ... read more
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