A severe tropical cyclone has crashed into northwestern Australia with the strongest winds the country has ever recorded but officials said the region’s towns and cities appeared to have escaped the worst of the storm.
Tropical Cyclone Ilsa was upgraded to a Category 5 storm – the strongest on the scale – shortly before it made landfall near the sparsely-populated town of Pardoo, about 19 hours’ drive northeast of Perth.
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The owners of the Pardoo Roadhouse, a well-known petrol station and caravan park in the path of the storm, said on Facebook it had “suffered great damage”.
Photos showed the roof torn away and the building open to the sky with goods flung from the shelves. The floor was covered with debris.
“We are all still a bit shaken and emotional to see the damage from Cyclone Ilsa,” manager Kelly Anne Martinez wrote. “She may have wiped us out, but she can’t take our spirit away.
“We face a massive clean-up with plans to rebuild.”
Authorities said big population centres appeared to have “escaped the brunt of the cyclone” but there were unconfirmed reports of “extensive damage” in some remote areas, emergency services spokesperson Peter Sutton told the national broadcaster ABC.
He said an aerial survey would be carried out as soon as it was safe.
Severe Tropical #CycloneIlsa crossed the coast as a Category 5 system, about 120km ENE of #PortHedland around midnight on Thursday 13 April, with an estimated intensity of 213 kmh. Stay up to date with warnings at https://t.co/NikaX4QRKr and follow advice of @dfes_wa pic.twitter.com/SuiKcEU3Yf
— Bureau of Meteorology, Western Australia (@BOM_WA) April 13, 2023
The Bureau of Meteorology said the cyclone had set a preliminary Australian record for the strongest sustained wind speeds over a 10-minute period, averaging 218 kilometres per hour (135 mph) with gusts of 288km/h (179 mph).
The previous record was 194 km/h (120mph), which was set in 2007 by Cyclone George.
Australian researchers have repeatedly warned that climate change amplifies the risk of natural disasters such as bushfires, floods and cyclones.
The Department of Fire and Emergency Services issued a new series of “red alerts” as the storm moved inland, ordering people to stay indoors until given the all-clear.
“There is a threat to lives and homes,” the department said.
Tropical storms typically run out of steam once they reach land but Ilsa is forecast to maintain an unusual intensity as it moves across the desert interior in the coming days with a risk of flash floods and destructive winds.
“As it moves inland and the sun comes up, we can expect it to still be a severe tropical cyclone,” the weather bureau’s hazard response manager Shenagh Gamble said.
The northwest coast of Western Australia is the most “cyclone-prone region” in the country, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.
It also has “the highest incidence of cyclones in the southern hemisphere”.
The region is home to some of Australia’s largest mining operations and holds significant deposits of iron ore, copper and gold.
Port Hedland, the world’s largest iron ore export hub, also appeared to have escaped the worst of the storm.