Queensland: Australia Braced For ‘Heartbreak’ As Cyclone Yasi Hits: UPDATED

2 Feb

Australians Brace For 'Monster' ...

One of the most powerful cyclones on record began pounding Australia’s northeast coast, threatening popular tourist cities and with people scrambling to find refuge after police turned them away from overcrowded shelters.

Video: Australians Flee As Cyclone Yasi Bears Down

Cyclone Yasi, packing winds of up to 300 km (186 miles) an hour near its core, started to come ashore along hundreds of km of coastline on Wednesday night, giving a foretaste of a storm centre described by authorities as “terrifying”.

“Tonight we need to brace ourselves for what we might find when we wake up tomorrow morning,” Queensland state premier Anna Bligh said.

“Without doubt, we are set to encounter scenes of devastation and heartbreak on an unprecedented scale. This cyclone is like nothing else we’ve dealt with before as a nation,”

Yasi is a maximum-strength category five storm, on a par with Hurricane Katrina which wrecked New Orleans in 2005.

Its centre is expected to hit land a little after midnight (2:00 p.m. British time).

Selwyn Hughes, turned away from a shopping centre acting as a shelter, stood with his family in the centre’s uncovered car park and said his only comfort for the moment was in numbers.

“There are so many of us here. Surely they have to do something, find somewhere safer to move us to before it arrives,” he said, squatting on a pink suitcase with his five children, aged two to 13.

Engineers warned that Yasi could even blow apart “cyclone proof” homes when its centre moved overland, despite building standards designed to protect homes from the growing number of giant storms.

Bligh said the cyclone could batter the state for up to three days as it moves inland and slowly weakens. She said 37,000 homes have already lost electricity.

The greatest threat to life will likely come from surges of water forecast at up to seven metres above normal high tide levels in the worst-affected coastal areas. Waves of 6.6 metres have already been recorded about 20 kms out from Townsville.

More than 400,000 people live in the cyclone’s path, including the cities of Cairns, Townsville and Mackay. The entire stretch is popular with tourists, includes the Great Barrier Reef, and is home to major coal and sugar ports.

In Townsville alone, the storm surge could flood up to 30,000 homes, according to the town’s web site. The tourist hub of Cairns also expects its city centre to be flooded.

The military is helping evacuate nearly 40,000 people from low-lying coastal areas, and from the two hospitals in Cairns.

COULD BE STRONGEST EVER

Satellite images showed Yasi as a massive storm system covering an area bigger than Italy, with the cyclone predicted to be the strongest ever to hit Australia.

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

Yasi threatened to inflate world sugar, copper and coal prices, forcing a copper refinery to close and paralysing sugar and coal exports. It even prompted a major mining community at Mt Isa, almost 1,000 km inland, to go on cyclone alert.

Global miners BHP Billiton and Peabody Energy have shut several coal mines located in Queensland ahead of the cyclone, an official for the union representing Queensland coal miners told Reuters.

SOLDIERS ON STANDBY

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has put 4,000 soldiers based in the garrison town of Townsville on standby to help once the cyclone passes, as well as military ships and helicopters.

Hundreds of people were lining up in a supermarket on the western side of Cairns, stocking up on staples such as bread, milk and tinned goods.

The centre of the cyclone is expected to make landfall between Cairns and Townsville. Yasi knocked out meteorology equipment on Willis Island in the Coral Sea, 450 km east of Cairns.

In Cairns, main streets were deserted. Shops were closed and windows taped to stop glass from shattering.

“We’re hoping for the best, but expecting the worst to be honest,” Scott Warren said as he covered windows with black plastic sheeting at a coffee shop on the Cairns waterfront.

TOURIST EXODUS

State premier Bligh warned that the mobile phone network may go down and said current estimates were that 150,000-200,000 people could lose power if winds topple transmission towers.

At Cairns airport, people queued from dawn to catch the last flights out of the city before the terminal was locked down and sandbagged against potential storm surges.

Queensland, which accounts for about a fifth of Australia’s economy and 90 percent of its steelmaking coal exports, has had a cruel summer, with floods sweeping across it and other eastern states in recent months, killing 35 people.

The state is also home to most of Australia’s sugar industry and losses for the industry from Yasi could exceed A$500 million, including crop losses and damage to farming infrastructure, industry group Queensland Canegrowers said.

(Additional reporting by Michael Smith and Bruce Hextall in Sydney and Rebekah Kebede in Perth)

(Writing by Ed Davies and James Grubel, Editing by Mark Bendeich and Jonathan Thatcher)

NEWS UPDATE:

Australians are bracing themselves for the biggest storm in the country’s modern history.

Australians Flee As Cyclone Yasi Bears Down Play video
 
Cyclone Yasi was upgraded to the highest level of storm overnight – a category five, on a par with Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005.

There are fears of destruction on a huge scale as it hits the northeast coast of Queensland from about midnight local time (2pm in the UK).

Strong wind gusts have already led to tens of thousands of people being left without power, with trees blown down and window shutters ripped from walls.

Tens of thousands of people have been fleeing their homes and more than 10,000 are staying at 20 emergency evacuation centres in Queensland, which is still reeling from last month’s floods.

Mines, rail lines and coal ports have been shut down and officials are warning that even areas well inland could be affected.

Because the cyclone coincides with high tide, there could be a storm surge of more than 20ft, sweeping a wall of water inland.

The massive weather system is 310 miles (500km) across, with the eye alone measuring 100km across. Gusts of almost 190mph (300kmh) are expected.

Queensland premier Anna Bligh said the last cyclone of such strength to cross the state was in 1918 – and this one would be “terrifying”.

“It’s such a big storm – it’s a monster, killer storm,” she said.

Speaking at a press conference earlier, she said waves had reached record heights in the sea off the coast of Townsville.

More than 61,000 homes are without electricity in north Queensland, including areas of Innisfail, Cairns and Townsville.

She said the speed of the cyclone had slowed, which meant storm surges – and flooding – might not be as bad as previously predicted. But it would also mean high winds affecting areas for longer.

Queensland police have received calls for emergency help, but crews are unable to assist “other than give advice on sheltering”.

The storm’s path includes Cairns, a city of about 164,000 people and a gateway for visitors to the Great Barrier Reef.

Earlier on Wednesday, Ms Bligh urged residents to flee.

“Do not bother to pack bags,” she said. “Just grab each other and get to a place of safety.”

Tourists left in Cairns, where the airport has been shut down, have been urged to stay in their hotel rooms, or in bathrooms if necessary.

Australia’s Prime Minster Julia Gillard said: “At this time as you face these frightening hours, we are with you in spirit.

“And in the days and hours beyond this cyclone, we will be with you on the ground making a difference.”

Some 71 people were killed when Cyclone Tracy – a category four storm – devastated the city of Darwin, northern Australia, in 1974.

In 2006, Cyclone Larry struck Queensland, leaving one person dead and causing hundreds of millions of pounds’ worth of damage.

Professor Jonathan Nott, from the Australasian Palaeohazards Research Unit at James Cook University, said: “We’ve been lulled into a false sense of security in Queensland because we’ve been through a fairly quiet time of cyclones since the 1970s.”

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