Powerful cyclone batters Australia

Thursday, February 3, 2011

CAIRNS, Australia -- The most powerful cyclone to strike northeastern Australia in nearly a century howled inland early Thursday, tearing off roofs, flattening trees and cutting electricity to more than 170,000 people.

As the sun rose after a night of furious winds and torrential rain, authorities advised residents to stay indoors until safety could be assessed in the still-dangerous conditions. Police said utility and transportation teams were surveying the extent of damage.

"They're doing that as rapidly as they can ... so they can give us the all clear to let people onto the roads and back to their homes," Cairns police superintendent Brian Connors said.

The eye of Cyclone Yasi roared ashore just after midnight at the small resort town of Mission Beach in Queensland state, battering the coast known to tourists as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef with heavy rain and howling winds gusting to 186 mph.

"Vegetation has been reduced to sticks," said Sgt. Dan Gallagher, Mission Beach officer in charge.

A man views a fallen tree today in Cairns, Australia, after Cyclone Yasi brought heavy rain and howling winds gusting to 186 mph. The massive cyclone struck northeastern Australia early today, the most powerful storm to hit the area in nearly a century. (Rick Rycroft ~ Associated Press)

Strong winds and torrential rain still battered towns in the early morning, making it too dangerous to venture far outside homes and evacuation centers and determine the extent of property damage. No deaths or serious injuries have been reported.

Dangerous storm front

Cyclone Yasi has been downgraded as it moves across Queensland state but remains a dangerous storm front, the Bureau of Meteorology said.

Damaging winds of above 55 mph are continuing along the coast and inland, and Queensland Premier Anna Bligh urged residents to seek shelter as the storm approached.

"We have people safe and sound today who would have been in the path of danger last night if they hadn't listened to the warnings," she said. "There is no room for complacency. It may be weakening but it is still a powerful storm and can and will bring danger to your communities. Please don't take this lightly."

Yasi compounded the suffering for Queensland, waterlogged by months of flooding that killed 35 people and inundated hundreds of communities.

The cyclone struck far north of the flood zone, but the Bureau of Meteorology warned it could flood new areas of the state.

About 175,000 people were without power, and restoring it would be a major priority when the storm had fully passed, Bligh said, but urged patience as it could be days if not weeks before power was restored in some regions.

"This has been ... a terrifying experience, but this morning because so many of them did take precautions, it seems that we certainly kept people safe in those centers and I'm very pleased about that," Bligh said. She added most damage assessments were not yet available.

More than 10,000 people fled to 20 evacuation centers in a danger zone stretching 190 miles (300 kilometers), amid strong warnings in the past two days. Many others moved in with family or friends in safer locations. Still, authorities prepared for the worst, including serious damage devastation and possible deaths.

Amid the chaos, a bit of happy news: a baby girl was born at a Cairns evacuation center just before dawn, after a three-hour labor.

Cairns councilor Linda Cooper said the healthy baby was delivered by a midwife who happened to also be at the evacuation center. It is the second child for Akiko Pruss, a Japanese woman who lives in Cairns with her husband. The baby has not yet been given a name, but will not be named for Cyclone Yasi.

"Akiko doesn't like that name at all," Cooper said.

Witnesses reported roofs being ripped off, buildings shaking and trees flattened under the power of the winds. Officials said the storm surge would flood some places to roof level.

"This is a cyclone of savagery and intensity," Prime Minister Julia Gillard said in a nationally televised news conference as the storm moved toward the coast. "People are facing some really dreadful hours in front of them."

The storm's front was about 300 miles (500 kilometers) across, with the worst of the winds expected to lash the coast for up to four hours, although blustery conditions and heavy rain could last for a day.

"It's such a big storm -- it's a monster, killer storm," Bligh had said Wednesday, adding that the only previous cyclone measured in the state at such strength was in 1918. "This impact is likely to be more life-threatening than any experienced during recent generations."

In the city of Cairns, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) north of Mission Beach and about 1,700 miles (2,730 kilometers) north of Sydney, guests at a waterfront hotel took cover in the central ballroom as lights flickered. Staff members handed out flashlights and pinned curtains shut over windows in danger of shattering.

Tourist Barbara Maskei, 49, of Germany, lay on the ballroom floor under a sheet reading a book, as her 20-year-old daughter, Annette, and husband, Peter, dozed beside her. For her, there would be no sleep. "I like to keep my eyes open," she said as the wind roared outside.

The staff distracted people with the movie "Music and Lyrics" playing on a giant screen. Some tried to sleep through the noise of the movie, wailing children and talking.

In Innisfail, a town about 55 miles (90 kilometers) south of Cairns that was nearly in the direct path of the storm, Mayor Bill Shannon said he saw the roof torn off near the local government building where about 500 people were sheltered.

Storm surges of at least 6.5 feet (2 meters) were likely and would almost certainly cause coastal flooding, forecasters said, adding that up to 28 inches (700 millimeters) of rain could fall within hours in some areas.

At highest risk was an area about 150 miles (240 kilometers) long between Cairns and the sugar cane-growing town of Ingham, the bureau said. The storm was forecast to continue inland at cyclone strength for two days and gradually weaken. It was unclear what the damage to the Great Barrier Reef would be, experts said.

Guests at a the Shangri-La hotel huddle in the ballroom in Cairns, Australia, Wednesday as a monster cyclone approaches the northeast coast with furious winds, rains and surging seas on a scale unseen in generations. Gusts up to 186 mph were expected when Cyclone Yasi strikes the coast late Wednesday after whipping across Australia's Great Barrier Reef. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

Warnings stretched as far away as Townsville, which is slightly larger than Cairns and about 190 miles (300 kilometers) to the south, and Mount Isa, about 500 miles (800 kilometers) inland.

Australia's huge, sparsely populated tropical north is battered annually by about six cyclones -- called typhoons throughout much of Asia and hurricanes in the Western hemisphere. Building codes have been strengthened since Cyclone Tracy devastated the city of Darwin in 1974, killing 71 in one of Australia's worst natural disasters.

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