March 19, 2006

Powerful cyclone hits northeastern Australia

CANBERRA (Reuters) - A powerful cyclone hit Australia's far
northeast early on Monday near the tropical city of Cairns,
with winds of up to 290 kph (180 mph) uprooting trees,
flattening crops and ripping off the roofs of houses.

Tropical Cyclone Larry posed a "very serious threat to life
and property" in the far north of Queensland state, the
Australian Bureau of Meteorology said, adding it had forced
thousands of people to take shelter or evacuate.

There were no immediate reports of casualties.

The winds were the strongest since a cyclone hit the
northern city of Darwin in 1974, destroying about 70 percent of
the city and killing 71 people.

Prime Minister John Howard ordered military helicopters on
alert for rescue operations, but officials said the cyclone was
downgraded to a category 4 from a category 5 storm as it came
ashore near the town of Innisfail.

"It still poses a real threat to people and property,"
Bruce Gunn from Australia's Cyclone Warning Center told Sky
television, adding that flying debris was the greatest danger
to people.

More than 5,000 homes in the area were without electricity.

"A large number of houses have been unroofed," Queensland
police superintendent Mike Keating told the Seven television
network. He said there were reports of people suffering minor
injuries, although the number was small, at this stage.

Steven Russo from the township of Wangan told the Seven
network he hid under his bed with his two children and said the
scene outside was "absolute devastation - you can't describe

Cairns is the main tourist center of north Queensland and
is a base for visitors to the Great Barrier Reef and inland
tropical rainforests. The area is also home to about 25 percent
of Australia's sugar crop and most of Australia's banana

Local council deputy mayor George Pervan told Australian
Associated press the cyclone had torn through the sugar cane
and banana crops, causing widespread damage.

"The crops are all gone, bananas are all flattened, cane's
flattened. It'll kill us for 12 or 18 months," Pervan said.

There were no reports of any damage to Australia's offshore
oil and gas fields, which are located off the west coast,
officials said. But mining operations further inland were
bracing for high winds as the storm moved west.

Kim Robinson, the managing director of Kagara Zinc Ltd.,
said the firm's ore treatment plant had been evacuated, but he
did not expect any lasting damage to the facility, which is
located well inland from Cairns.

In Melbourne, Howard said the military was ready to help
out, once the cyclone had passed.

"This is certainly a very fearful and challenging time for
the people of far north Queensland and I want them to know that
their fellow Australians are with them," he said.