Innisfail, Australia (AFP) Feb 2, 2011
Anxious families hunkered silently on the floor of a makeshift shelter, pets and a few precious belongings around them, waiting for dreaded Cyclone Yasi to unleash its terrible fury.
More than 10,000 people from around the small banana and sugarcane farming town of Innisfail were evacuated from their homes as the category five storm barreled directly towards them with awe-inspiring ferocity.
Hours before one of the worst storms in Australian history was due to slam into the heavily-populated Queensland coast, locals quietly held their breath, praying they would be spared Yasi's worst punishment.
"It's scary. It looks like Yasi could wipe Innisfail off the map," a grim-faced policeman muttered as residents of the close-knit town crowded into evacuation shelters Wednesday as the category five storm hurtled towards them.
Hundreds of men, women and children sat on thin mattresses laid out on floor of the old town hall, tight-faced and tense. The silence in the large room filled with people was deafening.
Clutching small bags of possessions near their feet and stroking scared pets, farmers mixed with foreign backpackers and members of the local Aboriginal community as nature played the role of social equaliser.
Officials ordered mandatory evacuations from low-lying seafront areas along the north Queensland coast as forecasters predicted tidal surges of up to seven metres (20 feet) in some places and winds of nearly 300 kilometres (190 miles) per hour when Yasi hits late Wednesday.
As residents waited for Yasi's roaring entrance, Innisfail member of parliament Bob Katter recalled the heartbreak and hardship caused by Cyclone Larry, which devastated the town in 2006, causing $Aus1.5 billion damage.
"There's a lot of people who came out of Cyclone Larry very badly damaged psychologically," he told public radio.
"To have to be hit again is really, really terrible. I'm... looking forward to the rest of the day with nothing less than dread."
Up and down the northern coast of the resources and agriculture-rich state, residents were boarding up their houses, taping windows and heading inland to avoid the cyclone.
The Australian scuba diving capital of Cairns, north of Innisfail, was transformed into an eerie ghost town by lunchtime Wednesday as shop and business owners shuttered their premises and holed up at home.
Following an early morning rush to buy last-minute food, alcohol and fuel supplies, the streets of the city were sealed as soldiers patrolled with loud-hailers, ordering residents to take shelters as the first winds hit.
"It looks like a bad one and we can't take for granted that we'll be all right," Cairns businessman Barry MacKay, 42, told AFP as he helped a friend move valuable possessions from his house.
"I was around for Larry, but this looks much huger. We'll get home and do our best to make sure the kids are safe."
Palm trees were inclined at unlikely angles along the foreshore as the winds and heavy rain heralded Yasi's dreaded arrival.
Locals were told to prepare safe rooms in their houses for their families to take shelter when the full force of the storm hits.
In Townsville, 350 kilometres south of Cairns, locals queued for supplies in a hardware store, already anticipating the mammoth clean-up ahead.
"We have taped the windows, brought lots of food and filled all our containers up with water," civil servant Iony Woolaghan told AFP.
"And now we have a mild sense of panic while it's all going on. The worst thing is the waiting."
But some Queenslanders, who regard themselves as tough survivors in a state wracked by natural disasters including deadly flooding earlier this month, played down the danger.
"We're concerned but not panicked," said Trish Fisher.
"Townsvillians aren't panickers. You need to be prepared. We will fill the bathtub, and I have bought a couple of new buckets for water, and we'll see how we go."
earlier related report
As the winds that heralded Severe Tropical Cyclone Yasi's arrival began battering hundreds of kilometres (miles) of Queensland coast, officials told residents it was now too late to escape the monster storm.
"The time for movement and evacuation has now passed," state Premier Ana Bligh said, terming Yasi "the most catastrophic storm to ever hit our coast.
"People should be sheltering wherever they are."
Yasi was upgraded to a category five storm from category four as it menaced the populous east coast, where it was expected to hit around 10:00 pm (1200 GMT) on Wednesday, the Bureau of Meteorology said.
"This impact is likely to be more life-threatening than any experienced during recent generations," it said in an ominous warning that raised the expected strength of the looming storm.
Yasi, packing a 650-kilometre (400-mile) front and an eye measuring about 35 kilometres across, was on course to slam directly into the area between the tourist hub of Cairns and Cardwell to the south.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard said Yasi looked like the worst cyclone in Australian history and said the nation was with Queenslanders as they faced "many, many dreadful, frightening hours" waiting for it to strike.
"This is probably the worst cyclone that our nation has ever seen. In the hours of destruction that are coming to them, all of Australia is going to be thinking of them," she said.
Yasi was expected to generate highly destructive winds of more than 280 kilometres per hour, 700 millimetres (27.5 inches) of rain and a storm surge that is threatening to flood towns and tourist resorts.
The epic cyclone, the first category five to hit the area since 1918, was over the Coral Sea about 400 kilometres offshore, but high winds were already battering the coast 10 hours before its arrival.
Yasi is so enormous that it would almost cover the United States, most of Asia and large parts of Europe, News Ltd newspapers reported.
Locals and tourists were warned to stay where they were and not to risk moving until the storm had passed.
Those remaining in their homes were told to prepare a "safe room" with mattresses, pillows, a radio, food and water supplies to wait out the cyclone.
"(People) should be preparing themselves for the fact that the roofs of their houses may lift off but that does not make the structure ... of the house any less sound," State Disaster Coordinator Ian Stewart said.
"They get wet but it is far more dangerous to panic and run out of the house than to stay bunkered down."
Thousands of people have already fled the area since Monday and seaside residents were urged to desert their homes ahead of a dangerous storm surge of between 2.3 and seven metres (yards) that was likely to cause major flooding.
Two hospitals in Cairns have been evacuated and shuttered, and their patients were airlifted on military planes to the city of Brisbane.
But airports and ports in Cairns and other cities down the coast were shut to traffic Wednesday as winds picked up strength, while remaining residents battened down in the safest rooms in their homes and prayed for safety.
The streets of Cairns, usually bustling with holidaymakers and diving enthusiasts, were eerily deserted. Eight evacuation centres set up to shelter those who were forced to flee their homes were full.
"We have a mild sense of panic. The worst thing is the waiting," government worker Iony Woolaghan told AFP from Townsville, where officials say more than 10,000 homes are at risk of flooding.
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 will also be 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.
Forecasters said Yasi could be "horrific" and take 24 hours to weaken after it makes landfall.
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Sydney (AFP) Jan 31, 2011
Australia's Queensland state is facing one of the worst cyclones in its history, officials warned Monday, bringing wild winds and potentially devastating rainfall to areas still awash with floods. Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said Severe Tropical Cyclone Yasi, a monster storm brewing on the Coral Sea, "may well be one of the largest and most significant cyclones that we've ever had to deal ... read more
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