The storm destroyed hundreds of homes and fields of banana and sugarcane crops, worth millions [Reuters]

The biggest cyclone to hit Australia in a century has left towns in the country's northeast shattered, but early reports suggested residents had escaped without serious casualties.

Cyclone Yasi hit the the north coast of the state of Queensland around midnight local time, with winds of up to 290km per hour.

"There are people now that have lost their homes, they have lost their farms, they have lost their crops and they have lost their livelihoods," Anna Bligh, the state premier, said.

Wayne Swan, the deputy prime minister, described the affected area as a "war zone".

Huge waves crashed into seaside communities, while banana and sugarcane crops worth hundreds of millions of dollars were destroyed in the storm.

Climate change

The state accounts for about a fifth of Australia's economy and 90 per cent of its steelmaking coal exports.

Officials said instructions to evacuate centres and information on how to bunker down had helped save lives.

However, hundreds of thousands of homes have been destroyed or seriously damaged.

"We were sitting at the kitchen table, we heard a ripping and off came the roof," Scott Torrens, 37, who hid his three children beneath mattresses in the family living room, told the AFP news agency.

Despite the devastation, three babies were born during the cyclone, including a girl who was brought into the world in an evacuation centre.

Australia's huge, sparsely populated tropical north is battered each year by about six cyclones.

Professor John Merson, head of the Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of New South Wales, said more such disasters were likely as climate change warms up waters and fuels extreme weather.

There is a "complete lack of attention being given to the fact that we have a category five cyclone because we have climate change, yet we completely ignore this factor in the whole thing", he was quoted by the AFP news agency as saying.

Source: Agencies