Australia cyclone heads inland after battering iron ore ports

SYDNEY Mon Dec 30, 2013 6:26pm EST

Ships waiting to be loaded with iron ore are seen at the Fortescue loading dock located at Port Hedland, in the Pilbara region of Western Australia December 3, 2013. REUTERS/David Gray

Ships waiting to be loaded with iron ore are seen at the Fortescue loading dock located at Port Hedland, in the Pilbara region of Western Australia December 3, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/David Gray

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SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia's Pilbara iron ore shipping and mining region, the world's largest, faced cyclonic winds and torrential rains on Tuesday after a cyclone made landfall after intensifying over the last few days in the Indian Ocean.

The key shipping ports of Dampier, Cape Lambert and Port Hedland bore the brunt of the storm after clearing dozens of iron ore freighters and evacuating staff over the weekend. Reports of damage were not immediately available.

Cyclone Christine, the second to batter Western Australia in the November 1-April 30 cyclone season, forced mining companies Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton and Fortescue Metals to suspend loading until emergency authorities sound the all-clear, expected over the next day or two.

Winds with gusts exceeding 160 kilometers per hour (100 mph)are possible near the center of the cyclone over the next few hours, easing only slightly as Christine moves inland during Tuesday, according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

A red alert - meaning residents must seek shelter - has been issued for the mining hubs of Tom Price and Paraburdoo, the weather bureau said. The area is home to some of Australia's biggest iron ore mines, including ones owned by Rio Tinto and Fortescue.

"There is a threat to lives and homes," the Department of Fire and Emergency Services said in a statement. "You are in danger and need to act immediately."

About 56,000 people live in the Pilbara, which is about the size of Peru.

Cyclones typically cause disruptions to mining operations of between two and five days.

Top Australian supplier Rio Tinto, which is relying on Cape Lambert and Dampier to ship 290 million tones of ore next year, halted port activities on Sunday.

Exports from Port Hedland, The world's largest iron ore export terminal and used by BHP and Fortescue, reached 28.1 million tones in November alone. The majority of the ore is shipped under contract to steel mills in China.

(Reporting by James Regan; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)

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