|Thousands of people have taken cover at evacuation centres as the ‘monumental storm’ approaches [REUTERS]|
A cyclone described as the most powerful in Australia’s history has struck the country’s northeast coast, ripping off roofs and cutting off power to thousands of homes.
“The large destructive core of Cyclone Yasi is starting to cross the coast between Innisfail and Cardwell, with a dangerous storm tide battering waves to the south of the cyclone centre,” the Bureau of Meteorology said on Thursday morning.
Police received numerous reports of widespread damage but so far, there have been no reports of injuries of deaths resulting from the category five storm, which made landfall at around midnight local time on Wednesday (14:00 GMT).
Strong winds and driving rain battered the coastline, while thousands of residents bunkered down in evacuation centres and their homes. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated while police were forced to turn some away from shelters that had reached capacity.
Mines, rail lines and coal ports have been shut, with officials warning the storm could drive far inland, hitting mining areas of Queensland state struggling to recover from recent devastating floods that killed 35 people and wreaked havoc in hundreds of communities
Engineers warned that even “cyclone proof” homes could be blown apart by winds expected to reach 300km per hour.
The eye of the cyclone crossed the coast close to the tourist town of Mission Beach at around midnight.
The stricken area’s residents have been warned of an “extremely dangerous sea level rise” and “very destructive” winds accompanying Yasi’s arrival, posing a severe threat to life.
Reporting from Cairns, Al Jazeera’s Andrew Thomas said this was a cyclone-prone area, “but nothing on this scale,” he said, calling Yasi a “monumental storm”.
Satellite images showed Yasi covering an area bigger than Italy or New Zealand, and predicted to be the strongest ever to hit Australia.
“What it all adds up to is a very frightening time,” state premier Bligh said. “We’re looking at 24 hours of quite terrifying winds, torrential rain, likely loss of electricity and mobile phones. People really need to be preparing mentally if nothing else.”
The Queensland state premier said current estimates were that 150,000-200,000 people could lose power if winds topple transmission towers.
The state accounts for about a fifth of Australia’s economy and 90 per cent of its steelmaking coal exports but the extent and of the damage might not be known for many hours.
Australia’s huge, sparsely populated tropical north is battered each year by about six cyclones, called typhoons, throughout much of Asia and hurricanes in the Western hemisphere.