Cyclone Yasi, Stronger Than Katrina, Hits Australia

Cyclone Yasi, Winds Stronger Than Katrina, Hits Australia
Hundreds of frightened residents flood into the evacuation centre in the old Town Hall as cyclone Yasi approaches Innisfail. Photographer: Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images

Tropical Cyclone Yasi, packing winds stronger than those from Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans, struck Australia’s northeast coast early today, lashing communities with the force of a storm described by authorities as the largest in the nation’s history.

Yasi hit shore as a Category 5 storm about 165 kilometers (103 miles) south of Cairns in Mission Beach, a resort town of about 3,000 people, battering Queensland state’s coast with wind gusts of as much as 290 kilometers per hour, the Bureau of Meteorology said. The cyclone has been downgraded to Category 2 and continues to weaken, according to the bureau’s website.

Though the towns of Mission Beach, Tully and Innisfail suffered the worst damage, larger population areas such as Cairns and Townsville escaped the brunt of the storm, authorities said. Yasi also ripped a path through key sugarcane growing areas in the state.

“We certainly seem to have areas like Cairns with serious damage to vegetation, trees and roofs,” Premier Anna Bligh told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio, adding she was thankful the cyclone didn’t hit land at a major population center and that no deaths or injuries had been reported. “Some of the towns worst affected are smaller and more remote places.”

Sugar futures surged to a 30-year high in London. Australia’s dollar fell from almost a one-month high, trading at $1.0068 as of 11:45 a.m. in New York, down from $1.0111 the previous day when it touched $1.0149.

Threat to Life

The cyclone, coming just weeks after the state capital, Brisbane, was hit by the worst flooding since 1974, was “likely to be more life threatening than any experienced during recent generations,” according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

“Hills have been stripped of vegetation and I have a power line lying on the ground right outside the window,” said Rhonda Murdoch, owner of Montage Beach Apartments at Mission Beach. “The wind was roaring, whistling and we could hear crashing outside. It looks like a war zone.”

More than 173,500 people have lost power, schools and airports are closed and military forces were used to airlift 200 hospital patients to Brisbane about 1,500 kilometers to the south.

The cyclone will last as long as three days and may still be a category 1 storm, defined by winds of up to 125 kilometers an hour, by Feb. 4, when it may reach Mt. Isa about 900 kilometers inland, Bligh said. The core will take four hours to pass, according to the weather bureau.

Bananas, Sugarcane

Yasi is more severe than Category 4 Cyclone Larry, which wiped out most of Australia’s banana crop and devastated sugar cane fields almost five years ago. Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans in Aug. 2005, had winds of as much as 280 kilometers per hour.

“This was terrifying, much worse than Larry,” said Nicholas Pervan who has 52 people staying at his Codge Lodge Backpackers Resort in Innisfail, which has a population of about 9,000. “Everyone’s well and accounted for, but we’re all a bit shaken. It’s not light enough yet to assess the damage.”

Yasi will weaken as it moves in a west-southwesterly direction toward the Georgetown area in the state’s north, the weather bureau said on its website.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who has provided help to Queensland from the nation’s military, said Yasi is the worst cyclone Australia has seen.

Military Support

“The people of Australia will be there to help the people of far North Queensland through,” Gillard told reporters in Canberra yesterday. “As the cyclone passes through and the hours that follow afterwards, arrangements are already being made to make available assets from our Australian Defence Force.”

Some 10,680 people are being sheltered in more than 20 evacuation centers along the coast to avoid a storm surge that is forecast to trigger flooding, Bligh said.

All but one of the designated evacuation centers in Cairns were full and turning away late arrivals, the municipal government reported on its website. The city of more than 120,000 people, about 1,700 kilometers north of Brisbane, is a tourist destination and gateway to the Great Barrier Reef.

The storm may affect more than 900 kilometers of coastline between Cape Flattery and Sarina.

Power Outages

The last Category 5 cyclone to strike the Queensland coast was in 1918, Bligh said. Cyclone Larry crossed near Innisfail in 2006, causing an estimated A$500 million ($504 million) of damage to infrastructure and crops, damaging about 10,000 homes and disrupting road and rail access for several days, the weather bureau said on its website.

Some 173,500 homes were left without power, Ergon Energy said in a posting on its Facebook page. The majority of those hit by the outage are in the Townsville and Ingham area, the Queensland-government owned utility said in the posting.

A group of six elderly people who called seeking an evacuation from the town of Hinchinbrook can’t be helped because conditions prevent any rescue efforts, state disaster coordinator Ian Stewart told reporters.

Coastal residents were warned of a storm tide as the cyclone approaches, with the tide in Townsville reaching the three meter mark and possible surges of as much as 7 meters, according to Stewart.

Economy Hit

Queensland is beginning a recovery effort estimated to cost at least A$5 billion as its economy prepares for slower growth because of flooding since November, Bligh said Jan. 28. The state contributes about 19 percent of Australia’s economic output, producing 80 percent of the country’s coking coal, Treasurer Wayne Swan said last month.

Tourists in Cairns, the Whitsundays and Townsville, popular centers for cruises to the Great Barrier Reef, rushed to board flights late yesterday before airports closed.

Losses to the sugar cane industry in the region, which accounts for about a third of Australian production, may be A$500 million, Steve Greenwood, chief executive officer of industry group Canegrowers, said in an e-mail.

Banana plantations in Queensland, which account for 85 percent of national production, face “catastrophic” losses while a fifth of the state’s A$3.3 billion cattle herd may be wiped out, the National Farmers’ Federation said in an e-mailed statement yesterday.

Century, the world’s second-largest zinc mine, slowed operations because of the cyclone, Bruce Loveday, a spokesman for Minmetal Resources Ltd.’s MMG unit, said yesterday by phone. Kagara Ltd. shut its Mt. Garnet zinc mine and treatment plant, Chairman Kim Robinson said by phone.

Rio Tinto Group and Xstrata Plc shut coal mines, while ports and rail lines are closed. At least 32 coal ships have headed out to sea after Hay Point harbor and the Abbot Point export terminal were shut, according to North Queensland Bulks Ports Corp. and Dalrymple Bay Coal Terminal Pty.

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