Catastrophic Cyclone Yasi Hammers Northeast Australia

A massive, powerful cyclone has begun to slam into the flood-ravaged northern state of Queensland, as people take shelter from the devastating weather. Tropical Cyclone Yasi, a Category 5 storm, the highest designation on Australia’s classification system, made landfall late on Wednesday night, local time.

“The large, destructive core of Cyclone Yasi is starting to cross the coast between Innisfail and Cardwell with a dangerous storm tide and battering waves to the south of the cyclone centre,” Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology said in a statement. (CNN)

“Cardwell’s a small town of about 3,000 people and they’ve all been evacuated today, but you can begin to think of the catastrophic damage that we might find tomorrow morning,” Queensland’s Premier, Anna Bligh, said. (CBC)

In Innisfail, a town about 90 kilometres south of Cairns that is nearly in the direct path of the storm, Mayor Bill Shannon said he saw the roof torn off a building near the local government building where some 500 people were sheltering. “We’re just hoping and praying we can all get through the night,” Shannon said. (Toronto Star)

“It sounds like a roaring train going over the top of the house. There are trees cracking outside,” Hayley Leonard told Seven Network television from a concrete bunker beneath her home in the town of Innisfail. (Reuters) Another Innisfail resident named Ray told ABC News, “I think all the roof is gone… It just sounded like an automatic rifle going bang, bang, bang, bang as it went.” (Reuters)

“It’s a phenomenal speed,” said Neil Bennet from the Tropical Cyclone Warning Centre. “Unless your house is exceptionally well built, there will be damage, there will be trees down, incredibly dangerous conditions, loose objects flying around as well.” (CBC)

Thousands of people were evacuated from their homes ahead of the storm, which is expected to be one of the worst the country has ever seen.

Earlier, Ms. Bligh warned residents they may have to cope alone for several days. “I can’t sugar coat this for people: It’s going to be a tough 24 hours, for some it’s going to be a tough couple of days,” she told a press conference. “They need to prepare for the worst case scenario, and that might mean they have to be self-sufficient for a couple of days. We will do everything in our power to minimize the time people are without assistance, but that may not be in our control.” (CNN) Bligh has urged residents in the threatened areas to take sensible precautions and to stay inside once the storm hits. “It will be a display of the awesome power of nature, but it is not something you want to go outside and watch,” she said. (CNN)

“I cannot say in strong enough terms, you have to take this window of opportunity now,” Ms. Bligh told local residents who had not yet left their homes. “Do not bother to pack bags, just grab each other and get to a place of safety.” (New York Times)

“Without doubt, we are set to encounter scenes of devastation and heartbreak… This cyclone is like nothing else we’ve dealt with before as a nation.” (Reuters)

Ms. Bligh said that 61,000 homes had lost electricity. She said a giant nine-metre (30-foot) wave had been recorded off the coast on Wednesday, highlighting what was the greatest threat to life: surges of water metres above normal high tide levels racing ashore. “It’s such a big storm – it’s a monster, killer storm,” Ms. Bligh said, adding the only previous storm measured in the state at such strength was in 1918. “This impact is likely to be more life threatening than any experienced during recent generations.” (Toronto Star)

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has announced a one-off flood tax aimed at helping to pay for the estimated AUS $5.6 billion (US $5.58 billion) damage caused. “This is a cyclone of savagery and intensity,” Ms. Gillard said in a nationally televised news conference. “People are facing really dreadful hours in front of them.” (CBC)

Residents in the affected areas – no strangers to extreme weather – had spent the past few days readying for the storm. “I have all my rations ready to go, batteries, candles,” said Carl Butcher, who lives in the coastal city of Cairns in Queensland state. “The authorities have been very proactive in informing us about this system. We have known about it for a week. That is more than enough time to prepare for it.” (CNN)

Still, many in the storm’s path were stoic. Cairns resident Jane Alcorn banned those who planned to shelter with her in the garage of her apartment complex from panicking. “There’s no crying, no hysterics,” said Alcorn, 42. “It’s going to be loud, it’s going to be scary. But we’ve got each other. (Toronto Star)

Carla Jenkins, 23, of Cairns, packed a suitcase, taped the windows of her house and fled to her grandmother’s sturdier apartment complex with her sister and her dog, Elmo. The women had candles, flashlights, water and canned food, and planned to spend the night huddled in a bathroom away from the windows. “I can’t see many Cairns people sleeping tonight,” she said. “Tonight’s going to be a very scary night.” (Toronto Star)

Hours before the storm was expected to make landfall, officials tried to keep people off the streets. They said the shelters were closed and told some residents it was too late to evacuate their homes.

Lachlan Brown, from Townsville, earlier told reporters he was experiencing the calm before the storm. “It’s all deserted, has been for quite a few hours. There’s quite a few trees down and some power lines. The street lights have been going on and off. We lost power a couple of times and it’s coming back on. There’s quite a few boats in the creek next to us tied to jetties, but they’re moving around a bit so I don’t know how long they’re going to last.” (CNN)

Carly Wallace, who lives near Cairns, said she’d been stocking up on food and water. “There’s always panic buying when it comes to cyclones – everyone goes a bit crazy. But with this one, because of how big it is, everyone’s going out buying everything,” the Atherton Tablelands resident said. Wallace said grocery store shelves were empty in the town of Atherton. “Nearly everything was gone off the shelf, even long-life milk and things like batteries and tape. There was no bread at all. So everyone is panic-buying but I think it’s for good reason.” (CNN)

Sever Tropical Cyclone Yasi is forecast to bring winds of 240 kph (143 mph) and maximum wind gusts of 300 kph (186 mph), and is expected to maintain that intensity for several hours.

Queensland Deputy Police Commissioner Ian Stewart warned the state faces “one of the most significant weather events” in its history. “This is a life-threatening storm, and people need to understand that they have a final window of opportunity to self-evacuate,” Stewart said earlier. (CNN) Mr. Stewart said people should move to rooms at the centre of their houses during the storm – usually the bathroom – as they are structurally safest and usually have no windows that could shatter. People should bring mattresses and other items to hide behind in case of flying debris, sturdy shoes, and raincoats in case roofs are ripped off. Power supplies and mobile phone services could be cut off for thousands of people.

There are serious concerns for six adults in Port Hinchinbrook who apparently ignored advice to evacuate the storm surge zone, before calling to request help from emergency services. Police – who are in contact with them via telephone – say the group is currently bunkered down on the second floor of an apartment block, but the tidal surge is expected to reach the top of the first floor.

Queensland is no stranger to cyclones. More than 20 people died and thousands of homes were wrecked when severe flooding hit Queensland in January, affecting 3.1 million people. Some 30,000 homes and businesses were destroyed. Many residents of the state had to take shelter last March when Category 3 Tropical Cyclone Ului barreled in. But that storm will not compare to the strength that Tropical Cyclone Yasi packs. Australia’s huge, sparsely populated north is battered each year by about six cyclones – called typhoons throughout much of Asia and hurricanes in the Western Hemisphere. Building codes have been strengthened since Cyclone Tracy devastated the city of Darwin in 1974, killing 71 in one of Australia’s worst natural disasters.

Queensland is also home to most of Australia’s sugar industry and losses for the industry from Yasi could exceed $500 million (Australian), including crop losses and damage to farming infrastructure, industry group Queensland Canegrowers said. (Reuters)

This article is a combination of information from CBC, CNN, New York Times, Reuters, and The Toronto Star.

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