Cyclone slams into Australia’s northeast coast
175,000 people without power in storm’s path
CAIRNS, Australia — A massive cyclone struck northeastern Australia early today, tearing off roofs, toppling trees, and cutting electricity to thousands — the most powerful storm to hit the area in nearly a century.
Cyclone Yasi roared ashore at the small resort town of Mission Beach in Queensland, battering the coast known to tourists as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef with heavy rain and howling winds gusting to 186 miles per hour.
“Vegetation has been reduced to sticks,’’ said Sergeant Dan Gallagher, Mission Beach officer in charge.
Yasi compounded the suffering for Queensland, waterlogged by months of flooding that killed 35 people and inundated hundreds of communities. The cyclone struck an area far north of the flood zone, but the Bureau of Meteorology said its drenching rains could cause floods in new parts of the state.
The extent of property damage across Queensland was unknown just before dawn because it was still too dangerous to venture very far outside homes and evacuation centers, with strong winds and torrential rain continuing to batter towns.
No deaths or serious injuries have been reported.
About 175,000 people were without power, and restoring it would be a major priority when the storm had fully passed, Premier Anna Bligh of Queensland said.
“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. “The early news is not anything like I expected to hear this morning. . . . I do stress in many cases we are yet to see any assessments.’’
More than 10,000 people fled to 20 evacuation centers in a danger zone stretching 190 miles, amid strong warnings over the past two days. Many others moved in with family or friends in safer locations. Still, authorities prepared for the worst, including serious devastation and possible deaths.
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 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 a monster, killer storm,’’ Bligh had said yesterday, 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 north of Mission Beach and about 1,700 miles 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.
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 from the storm by playing the movie “Music and Lyrics’’ on a giant screen. Some tried to sleep through the noise of the movie, wailing children, and loud conversations.
In Innisfail, a town about 55 miles 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.
“We’re just hoping and praying we can all get through the night,’’ Shannon said.
In nearby Tully, Ross Sorbello described feeling his house shake from the wind. “The wind and rain outside are howling; it’s a horrible sound,’’ he said.
Storm surges of at least 6 1/2 feet were likely and would almost certainly cause coastal flooding, forecasters said, adding that up to 28 inches of rain could fall within hours in some areas.
At highest risk was an area about 150 miles long between Cairns and the sugar cane-growing town of Ingham, the bureau said.