The Heat Is Online

Massive Cyclone Batters Australian Coast

March 23, 1999

KARRATHA, Australia -(Reuters)- A tropical cyclone whipping up violent winds battered Australia's northwest coast, destroying buildings in a small fishing town and bringing widespread flooding.

Cyclone Vance, one of the most powerful tropical storms to pound Australia, swept down Exmouth Gulf, churning out winds of up to 290 kph (180 mph) as it rushed past the town of Exmouth.

"We've had no injuries reported," said Rick Guy, of Western Australia's State Emergency Services. "That's very lucky given the size of it."

Cyclone Vance, a maximum category five cyclone, was more powerful than Cyclone Tracy which destroyed the northern city of Darwin on Christmas Eve 1974, killing 60 people.

The highest wind gust ever recorded in Australia, produced by Cyclone Livia in April 1996, was measured at 267 kph. Guy said precise measurements were still being collated from Cyclone Vance's passage past Exmouth, 1,200 km (745 miles) north of Perth.

"It looks like we could have the record - we'll have a better idea tomorrow," Guy told Reuters.

After passing down Exmouth Gulf, the cyclone headed south-southeast overland and was expected to bring heavy rain to inland areas in the coming days. As it passed over the coast, it was downgraded to a category four cyclone.

Exmouth residents said Vance ripped off roofs, tore apart sheds and brought down powerlines, while many houses were flooded as the powerful winds hammered buildings with torrential rain.

Guy said anecdotal evidence suggested about 70 percent of the buildings in the town were damaged.

"We have just lost our shed and the force of the wind is just bringing rain into the house," Exmouth resident Jenny Burkett told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.

"The wind is so strong under our house that it pushes a four-foot surge of water up the bathroom drain," Burkett said.

Exmouth Gulf, about 40 km (25 miles) wide at its mouth, is part of "Cyclone Alley" in Western Australia - a regular path for tropical cyclones. The Gulf is home to the fishing and holiday town of Exmouth, with a population of some 2,400, and a sprinkling of tiny coastal communities.

"We would expect some severe winds - although not as destructive - and heavy rain," said Graham Kingston, a forecaster at the Western Australia Bureau of Meteorology's Cyclone Warning Centre.

Vance's torrential rain caused widespread flooding in the usually dry outback coast, with towns like Onslow underwater.

"We are sitting inside at the moment, everything is shut up. It's pretty awesome out there. The rain is going sideways, trees are down...it is just a mess out there," said Tina Smith, one of the few residents who decided to remain in Onslow.

The Onslow hospital had been closed after its roof was ripped off. "We have evacuated all the patients and most of the staff," said a hospital official.

As the storm hit, Kirsty Hunt, manager of the Exmouth Tourist Bureau, said her family had moved bed mattresses into the bathroom to prepare a safe zone for when Vance hit the coast.

"The patio outside looks like it's going to take off any second and all the window shutters have all just blown off in the last half hour," Hunt told a local radio station in Exmouth, hundreds of kilometres south of Karratha.

Tourists in the region were also trapped by Vance.

Oliver Taning, an Irish tourist visiting Exmouth, told the radio station that he had never been so scared. "I didn't want to ring them (my family back in Ireland) because it would just make matters worse for my family," Taning said.

Rain from the cyclone halted open pit operations at gold mines around Kalgoorlie, 1,000 km (620 miles), to the south as mines battened down for further rain from Cyclone Vance.

A number of major resource projects were shut down by Vance, including the Lake Macleod salt facility of Rio Tinto Ltd and giant iron ore mines owned by the Broken Hill Pty Co Ltd and Rio Tinto Plc/Ltd.

West Australian Petroleum Pty Ltd's Barrow Island and Thevenard Island oilfields were shut down on Saturday, along with BHP's Griffin field, which produces 58,000 barrels of crude a day.

(C) Reuters Limited 1999.