Australia's north braces for massive cyclone

CANBERRA Mon Jan 31, 2011 4:16am EST

A weather satellite image obtained from NOAA shows tropical cyclone Yasi passing near the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu heading towards the coast of Australia on January 31, 2011. REUTERS/NOAA/Handout (ENVIRONMENT)

A weather satellite image obtained from NOAA shows tropical cyclone Yasi passing near the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu heading towards the coast of Australia on January 31, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/NOAA/Handout (ENVIRONMENT)

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia's flood-stricken state of Queensland closed major coal ports, evacuated tourists from vulnerable resorts and warned of heavy rain on Monday ahead of a massive cyclone due to slam into its coast this week.

Forecasters said Cyclone Yasi could be generating gales of more than 250 kph when it hits the coast on Wednesday or Thursday, which would put it on a par with Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005.

"This is a very serious threat," Queensland Premier Anna Bligh told reporters. "It may be one of the largest and most significant cyclones we've ever had to deal with."

Queensland, which accounts for about a fifth of Australia's economy and 90 percent of its exports of steelmaking coal, has borne the brunt of a cruel summer, with floods having swept across the eastern seaboard in the past month, killing at least 35 people.

Queensland is also home to Australia's sugar industry, which was also hurt by the floods and now risks being battered by the cyclone.

The floods swamped around 30,000 homes, destroyed roads and rail lines and crippled Queensland's coal industry, with up to 15 million tonnes of exports estimated to have been delayed into the second half of this year.

Queensland's coal mines are mostly well inland and unlikely to be smashed by Cyclone Yasi, but they could be drenched again by heavy rain. The mines are still struggling to pump water out of their pits.

The Queensland Resources Council has estimated that the state's coal miners would take until March to return to normal but warned on Monday of further delays because of cyclones.

"If we get any more rain, it's just going to stretch out that time frame," council spokeswoman Caroline Morrissey said.

"The problem is we have got water in the pits, the mine dams are full and to pump water out of the pits they need to pump the water into the mine dams and there is no room for the water."

Cyclone Yasi is expected to classified "category 4" by the time it reaches the coast. That is the second-highest category and would be around the same strength as Hurricane Katrina and the strongest to hit Australia since early 2006.

Cyclone Yasi, currently in the southwest Pacific, is expected to make landfall near the northeast military town of Townsville with wind gusts of 200 to 260 kph, but with damaging winds along more than 1,000 km (620 miles) of coastline.

Australia's largest export terminal for coking coal, Dalrymple Bay, had already suspended operations on Sunday because of an earlier cyclone, now passed. It decided on Monday to remain closed with the rapid approach of Yasi.

A Reuters poll of analysts last week showed Queensland would lose 11.3 million tonnes in coking coal output in 2011, equal to almost 5 percent of world exports. Most analysts believed miners would take until end-March to return to normal.

No sugar ships are currently in the major export terminal of Mackay, Australia's biggest sugar export port which can handle up to 3 million tonnes a year. Most of the sugar from last harvest has already been shipped.

(Additional reporting by Rebekah Kebede in PERTH, Amy Pyett and Mark Bendeich in SYDNEY)

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