Worst of Australia storm over; no deaths reported

Friday, February 4, 2011

TULLY, Australia -- Rain and gusts from a weakening cyclone continued to bluster across northeastern Australia Friday as those caught in the eye of the storm sought to salvage belongings from homes with missing roofs and flooded floors.

With the worst of the storm over, airports reopened and airlines resumed their normal timetables. But residents were still reliving the terror of Cyclone Yasi, one of the most powerful storms ever recorded in Australia.

David Leger recalled the terrifying roar, then a violent bang like something had exploded.

"We gotta go!" David Leger screamed to his father as the cyclone tore the roof off their home, sucking the air up and out of the room like a vacuum.

Leger and his parents scrambled down the staircase, but the house shook violently, sending 83-year-old Francis Leger tumbling down the stairs. The family finally made it to a small room on the ground floor, where they rode out the storm that slammed into the already flood-ravaged Queensland state Thursday.

"We're just thankful," David Leger said later as he slogged across the drenched carpet of their ruined home, water pooling around his sandaled feet. "This is only material."

Residents and officials were amazed and relieved that no one was reported killed by Cyclone Yasi, which roared across northern Queensland early Thursday with winds up to 170 mph. Tidal surges sent waves crashing ashore two blocks into seaside communities, several small towns directly under Yasi's eye were devastated and hundreds of millions of dollars of banana and sugarcane crops were shredded.

Officials said lives were spared because, after days of increasingly dire warnings, people followed instructions to flee to evacuation centers or protect themselves at home in dozens of cities and towns in Yasi's path.

Hundreds of houses were destroyed or seriously damaged, and the homes of thousands more people would be barely livable until the wreckage was cleared, officials said. Piles of drenched mattresses, sodden stuffed animals, shattered glass and twisted metal roofs lay strewn across lawns in the hardest-hit towns.

The region is considered a tourist gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, but whether the storm caused damage to the reef was not yet known. Experts say that cyclones can cause localized reef damage as they cross over and that under normal circumstances they will recover.

Cyclone Yasi has weakened into a tropical depression as it travels westward and the Bureau of Meteorology has canceled an earlier cyclone warning for the tropical interior of Queensland. But the bureau warned that damaging winds of more than 56 mph were possible and severe thunderstorms could cause flash flooding.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said she hoped to offer some comfort to victims while touring the storm-tossed region Friday.

"It's really a privilege to be able to come and share some experiences with people," she said. "I would prefer that my visit to Queensland was for other purposes but we're here because nature's been continuing to throw challenges to Queensland."

The disaster zone was north of Australia's worst flooding in decades, which swamped an area in Queensland state the size and Germany and France combined and killed 35 people during weeks of high water until last month.

But the storm added to the state's woes, and was sure to add substantially to the estimated $5.6 billion in damage since late November. The government has already announced a special tax nationwide to help pay for the earlier flooding.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said several thousand people would be temporarily homeless, and Red Cross Australia and local governments were registering people in need and finding places to house them.

It would take days to make a proper assessment of the damage, and fatalities could yet emerge.

"It's a long way to go before I say we've dodged any bullets," Bligh said.

Emergency Services Minister Neil Roberts said initial assessments were that more than 280 houses were damaged in the three hardest-hit towns, and crews were unable to reach at least four others, so the tally would certainly rise.

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 deadliest natural disasters.

"This was the worst cyclone this country has experienced, potentially, for 100 years, and I think that due to very good planning, a very good response ... we've been able to keep people safe," Roberts said.

Still, signs of devastation were everywhere. The main coastal highway was a slalom course of downed trees and power lines, fields of sugar cane and banana were shredded and flattened, and lush hillside forests were stripped of every leaf.

Rudy Laguna, 53, picked his way through the drenched rubble of a house he owns in Tully on Thursday. The roof had peeled away, the windows were shattered and what was left of the siding flapped in the wind. He paused on the veranda and looked up at what was once the ceiling -- and saw nothing but cloudy sky.

"It's only timber and fiber," he said. "As long as no one got hurt, it's OK."


Bureau of Meteorology: http://www.bom.gov.au/cyclone/index.shtml

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