Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Shocking cyclone wreaks chaos in Australia

INNISFAIL, Australia (AFP) – A frightening top-strength cyclone slammed into Australia's populous northeast coast Thursday leaving a trail of obliteration, the worst storm to batter the region in a century.

Howling winds beat up by Severe Tropical Cyclone Yasi with speeds of up to 290 kilometres (181 miles) per hour ripped off roofs, felled trees and cut power lines as the tempest crossed the Queensland coast.

Yasi made landfall around midnight (1400 GMT), the Bureau of Meteorology said, after the cyclone was improved early in the day to a category five storm from category four. The storm made landfall near Mission Beach, which lies in the heart of a tourism and agriculture-rich area 180 kilometres south of Cairns, gateway to the Great Barrier Reef.

The bureau later downgraded the cyclone to a group three storm and said it would continue to weaken as it moved in a west-southwesterly direction but said it remained dangerous. "The very unhelpful core, with gusts up to 205 km/h, is continuing to move inland west of Cardwell towards the Georgetown area," it said.

"Critical winds with gusts in excess of 125 km/h are occurring between Innisfail and Townsville and extending inland to east of Georgetown." The stricken area's million inhabitants were earlier warned of an "extremely dangerous sea level rise" and "very destructive" winds supplementary Yasi's arrival, posing a severe threat to life.

State Premier Anna Bligh echoed the bleak note of caution, urging residents to steel themselves for what dawn and the passing of the storm might make known. "Without doubt we are set to meet scenes of devastation and heartbreak on an unprecedented scale," she said.

"It will take all of us and all of our strength to conquer this. The next 24 hours I think are going to be very, very tough ones for everybody." More than 10,000 seaside residents and tourists were protecting in 20 evacuation centres across the region -- some so crowded that people were turned away -- while tens of thousands more were staying with family and friends.

Locals further from the water were told to batten down and get ready a "safe room" such as a bathroom or a basement, with mattresses, pillows, a radio, food and water supplies to wait out the cyclone. About 4,000 soldiers were on standby to help residents when the storm passed, but until then, locals were on their own as it was too unsafe to deploy emergency personnel, officials said.

Yasi was determining up as the worst cyclone in Australian history, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said, adding the nation was with Queenslanders as they faced "many, many dreadful, frightening hours" of destruction.

"This is almost certainly the worst cyclone that our nation has ever seen," Gillard said. Bligh said grave fears were held for major power transmission lines in the region, never before tested at category five winds, caution that their failure would be a "catastrophic" issue for the entire state.

"We are planning for an aftermath that may see a catastrophic failure of necessary services," she said. The storm's size and power dwarfs Cyclone Tracy, which hit the northern Australian city of Darwin in 1974, killing 71 people and destruction more than 90 percent of its houses.

It comes after scores of Queensland towns were overwhelmed and more than 30 people killed by flooding in recent weeks that caused Australia's most luxurious natural disaster on record.