CAIRNS, Australia (Reuters) - One of the most powerful cyclones on record slammed into Australia’s coast on Thursday, uprooting trees, tearing roofs off buildings and raising the danger of deadly storm surges.
Cyclone Yasi, packing winds of up to 300 km (186 miles) an hour near its core, come ashore along hundreds of kilometres of northeast coastline late on Wednesday.
Mines, rail lines and coal ports have been shut, with officials warning the storm could drive inland, hitting mining areas of Queensland state struggling to recover from devastating floods. Queensland accounts for about a fifth of Australia’s economy and 90 percent of its steelmaking coal exports.
The eye of the cyclone crossed the coast close to the tourist town of Mission Beach at around midnight.
It sounds like a roaring train going over the top of the house. There are trees cracking outside, Hayley Leonard told Seven Network television from a concrete bunker beneath her home in the town of Innisfail.
Police said there were no reports of severe damage or loss of life but communications to some areas were cut.
Graphic on cyclone's path link.reuters.com/zaq77r
Almost everyone in the storm zone was bunkered down at home or in cyclone shelters. Tens of thousands of people were evacuated in the hours before the storm struck.
A Bureau of Meteorology spokesman said a storm surge of two metres (six feet) above the normal level of the tide had inundated one stretch of coast but some reporters said the surges did not appear to be as severe as feared.
State Premier Anna Bligh said earlier the force of the cyclone was unprecedented.
“I am not going to sugar-coat this. It’s going to be a tough 24 hours ... We are still in for the worst,” Bligh told a briefing.
“Without doubt, we are set to encounter scenes of devastation and heartbreak ... This cyclone is like nothing else we’ve dealt with before as a nation.”
Yasi is a maximum-strength category five storm and has drawn comparisons with Hurricane Katrina which wrecked New Orleans in 2005.
The storm threatens 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 (620 miles) inland, to go on alert.
Global miners BHP Billiton and Peabody Energy have shut several coal mines in Queensland ahead of the cyclone, an official for the union representing Queensland coal miners told Reuters.
“BANG, BANG, BANG”
Engineers warned that Yasi could even blow apart “cyclone proof” homes when its centre moved overland, despite building standards designed to protect homes from a growing number of giant storms.
Authorities said 150,000 homes were without power.
“I think all the roof is gone,” Ray, a resident of a town south of Innisfail, told ABC news. “It just sounded like an automatic rifle going bang, bang, bang, bang as it went.”
Bligh said the cyclone could batter the state for up to three days as it moved inland and slowly weakened. She said 61,000 homes had lost electricity.
She said a giant nine-metre (30-foot) wave had been recorded off the coast on Wednesday, highlighting what is likely to be the greatest threat to life: surges of water metres above normal high tide levels racing ashore.
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 centre to be flooded.
Satellite images showed Yasi as a massive storm system covering an area bigger than Italy. It is predicted to be the strongest ever to hit Australia.
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.
Queensland 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 Robert Birsel)