SYDNEY The iron ore shipping hub Port Hedland escaped the brunt of a powerful cyclone that swept across the northwest Australian coastline on Thursday, with emergency officials lifting evacuation alerts as the storm veered east and lost much of its punch.
By 1700 GMT, Cyclone Rusty had been downgraded to a Category 2 tropical cyclone after touching land 100 kms (60 miles) east of Port Hedland near the town of Pardoo.
"An all clear advice is current for people in or near the coastal communities of Port Hedland and South Hedland," the Western Australian Department of Fire and Emergency Services said in a statement.
"Storm surge is no longer a risk for the Port Hedland area now that the cyclone has crossed the coast," it said.
Fears that the storm would cause extensive damage to operations in the Pilbara iron belt led to the suspension of shipping and loading at ports handling more than 500 million metric tons of iron ore a year, half the world's seabourne-traded supply.
Satellite tracking by meteorologists showed the cyclone crossing the coastline near Pardoo, a small mining town and cattle station east of Port Hedland early on Thursday. Atlas Iron, which operates a mine in Pardoo yielding around 2.5 million metric tons of ore a year, has evacuated the site.
Australia's three main iron ore ports, Port Hedland, Dampier and Cape Lambert, were closed on Monday. Offshore oil and gas fields have also been shut down.
Weather warnings remained as far as 500 km (310 miles) inland to the mining camps and towns of Tom Price, Mt Newman and Nullagine, operated by Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton and Fortescue Metals Group.
The region, known as the Pilbara, is a sparsely populated and inhospitable outback part of Australia, and is the world's largest source of iron ore.
At its strongest, Rusty was packing winds in excess of 200 km/hour (120 miles/hour). By 1700 GMT, gusts had dropped to around 125 kms (70 miles), according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.
Rusty is the fourth cyclone to form during Australia's 2012-13 "cyclone season" which runs from November to the end of April. There are typically 11 cyclones per season off Australia's northwest and northeast coasts.
($1 = 0.9793 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by James Regan; Editing by Nick Zieminski)