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‘Devastating’ cyclone slams Australia's northeast coast

Residents of northeastern Australia have been hit by devastating cyclone Yasi, stretching 650 kilometres across and packing winds with speeds of up to 290 kilometres an hour. The storm made landfall around midnight (1400 GMT).


AFP - A terrifying top-strength cyclone slammed into Australia's populous northeast coast Thursday leaving a trail of destruction, the worst storm to batter the region in a century.

Howling winds whipped up by Severe Tropical Cyclone Yasi with speeds of up to 290 kilometres (181 miles) per hour ripped off roofs, felled trees and cut power lines as the storm crossed the Queensland coast.

Yasi made landfall around midnight (1400 GMT), the Bureau of Meteorology said, after the cyclone was upgraded early in the day to a category five storm from category four.

The storm made landfall near Mission Beach, which lies in the heart of a tourism and agriculture-rich area 180 kilometres south of Cairns, gateway to the Great Barrier Reef.

The bureau later downgraded the cyclone to a category three storm and said it would continue to weaken as it moved in a west-southwesterly direction but said it remained dangerous.

"The very destructive core, with gusts up to 205 km/h, is continuing to move inland west of Cardwell towards the Georgetown area," it said.

"Destructive winds with gusts in excess of 125 km/h are occurring between Innisfail and Townsville and extending inland to east of Georgetown."

The stricken area's million residents were earlier warned of an "extremely dangerous sea level rise" and "very destructive" winds accompanying Yasi's arrival, posing a severe threat to life.

State disaster coordinator Ian Stewart said deaths in Yasi's terrible path were "very likely".

"Unfortunately we are going to see significant destruction of buildings... and it is very likely that we will see deaths occur. We have not hidden from that fact," he told Sky News.

Local councillor Ross Sorbello told the Australian Associated Press (AAP) the scene in the north Queensland town of Tully was one of "mass devastation" with roofs ripped from homes.

Tully resident Stephanie Grimaz said houses in her street had been ripped apart.

"The flat from across the street is in our front yard and we can see other houses which have just been destroyed," she told AAP.

Forecasters had earlier said that Yasi, the first category five storm to hit the area since 1918, was likely to be "more life-threatening than any (storm) experienced during recent generations."

State Premier Anna Bligh echoed the grim note of caution, urging residents to steel themselves for what dawn and the passing of the storm might reveal.

"Without doubt we are set to encounter scenes of devastation and heartbreak on an unprecedented scale," she said.

"It will take all of us and all of our strength to overcome this. The next 24 hours I think are going to be very, very tough ones for everybody."

More than 10,000 seaside residents and tourists were sheltering in 20 evacuation centres across the region -- some so packed that people were turned away -- while tens of thousands more were staying with family and friends.

Locals further from the water were told to batten down and prepare a "safe room" such as a bathroom or a basement, with mattresses, pillows, a radio, food and water supplies to wait out the cyclone.

About 4,000 soldiers were on standby to help residents when the storm passed, but until then, locals were on their own as it was too dangerous to deploy emergency personnel, officials said.

Yasi was shaping up as the worst cyclone in Australian history, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said, adding the nation was with Queenslanders as they faced "many, many dreadful, frightening hours" of destruction.

"This is probably the worst cyclone that our nation has ever seen," Gillard said.

Bligh said grave fears were held for major power transmission lines in the region, never before tested at category five winds, warning that their failure would be a "catastrophic" issue for the entire state.

"We are planning for an aftermath that may see a catastrophic failure of essential services," she said.

The storm's size and power dwarfs Cyclone Tracy, which hit the northern Australian city of Darwin in 1974, killing 71 people and flattening more than 90 percent of its houses.

It comes after scores of Queensland towns were devastated and more than 30 people killed by flooding in recent weeks that caused Australia's most expensive natural disaster on record.

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