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Australia Braces for Strongest Cyclone in the Nation's Hist

'Mass devastation': Cyclone Yasi hits Australia

'People are facing some really dreadful hours in front of them,' prime minister says

msnbc.com news services, Feb. 2, 2011  

CAIRNS, Australia — The destructive core of one of the most powerful cyclones in Australia's history battered its northeastern coast early Thursday, wrenching roofs off buildings and cutting power to tens of thousands of homes.

The eye of Cyclone Yasi was passing over the town of Tully after coming ashore at Mission Beach in northern Queensland.
Local official Ross Sorbello told the Sydney Morning Herald that the storm tore the roof off his mother's home in Tully, where he rode out the storm.

"We are talking about a pretty strong brick house that was built in the 70s, so God help us in the morning when we look at some of the older places," he told the newspaper.

"It is just a scene of mass devastation," he added.

Other witnesses reported seeing roofs ripped off buildings and trees flattened in the area, and officials said power had been cut to at least 90,000 homes.

Australian officials have warned that Yasi was expected to cause substantial damage and probably some deaths, though they would have little idea of the scale of the disaster until the worst had passed. The storm was packing winds up to 186 mph and will take several hours to blow through any given area.

The storm will compound misery in Queensland, which has already been hit by months of flooding that killed 35 people and inundated hundreds of communities. Yasi hit north of the main waterlogged area, but emergency services across the state are already stretched.

The Bureau of Meteorology said in a statement that the storm's "large and destructive core" has started crossing the coast near the small town of Mission Beach in northern Queensland state.

'Savagery and intensity'

Australian leaders issued dire warnings of potential devastation for cities and towns dotted along a stretch of the coast more than 190 miles long in the north Queensland state, in an area considered the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, which is popular with tourists.
"This is a cyclone of savagery and intensity," Prime Minister Julia Gillard said in a nationally televised news conference. "People are facing some really dreadful hours in front of them."

A few hours before Yasi was due to make landfall, officials said it was too late for people to evacuate their homes and announced that shelters were closed, in an effort to keep people off the streets.

Yasi also will lash the coast with up to 28 inches of rain, and will send tidal surges far deeper inland than usual, the Bureau of Meteorology said.

The bureau said most at risk was a band between the tourist city of Cairns and the sugar cane-growing town of Ingham, though warnings stretched as far as Townsville, about 190 miles south of Cairns.

'Catastrophic proportions'

"We are facing a storm of catastrophic proportions," Queensland state premier Anna Bligh said after Yasi was upgraded to a maximum-strength category five storm.

"All aspects of this cyclone are going to be terrifying and potentially very, very damaging."

She had daunting words for those yet to find a refuge.

"It is now time for all movement and evacuation to cease," she said, adding 10,680 people had now crammed into evacuation centers.

More than 400,000 people live in the cyclone's expected path, which includes the cities of Cairns, Townsville and Mackay.

Satellite images showed Yasi as a massive storm system covering an area bigger than Italy or New Zealand, with the cyclone predicted to be the strongest ever to hit Australia. Officials said it would take around an hour for the eye to pass over any one point.

The greatest threat to life could come from surges of water forecast at up to 23 feet above normal high tide levels in the worst-affected coastal areas, Bligh said. The storm may hit when the tide is high.

Mines, rail lines and coal ports have all shut down, with officials warning the storm could drive inland for hundreds of miles, hitting rural and mining areas still struggling to recover after months of devastating floods.

'Water is coming NOW'

Earlier Wednesday, police told people to get off the streets of Cairns. "Everyone's gotta go now," one officer told pedestrians strolling near the waterfront. "The water is coming NOW."

Cairns residents Jane Alcorn and Alan Buckingham filled a basket with food and trash bags at a grocery store buzzing with locals picking up last-minute essentials Wednesday morning. The couple said they feared winds would tear the roof off their apartment complex, and planned to shelter in their garage with other tenants.

Buckingham, who is from Britain and has never experienced a cyclone before, was having some trouble keeping his nerves in check.
"Where do you run to?" asked Buckingham, 48. "You can't run inland and outpace it. ... You gotta sit it out."

Alcorn, a 42-year-old veteran of Queensland storms, said she had already banned those sheltering with them from panicking during the storm.

"There's no crying, no hysterics," she said. "It's going to be loud, it's going to be scary. But we've got each other."

State disaster coordinator Ian Stewart said people should move to rooms at the center of their houses during the storm — usually the bathroom — as they were structurally safest and usually had no windows that could shatter. People should bring mattresses and other items to hide behind in case of flying debris, sturdy shoes, and raincoats in case roofs are ripped off.
Power supplies and mobile phone services were expected to be cut for thousands of people.

The timing of Yasi's landfall, just after high tide, meant high storm surges of at least 6.5 feet were likely to flood significant areas along the coast, the weather bureau said.

The worst winds were expected to last up to four hours, though windy conditions and heavy rain could last for 24 hours. The storm was expected to carry cyclone-force winds up to 250 miles inland.

Queensland has been in the grip of Australia's worst flooding in decades, with some hundreds of communities inundated, including large parts of Brisbane, and 35 people killed.

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

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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