March 30, 2006

Flooding Fears after Cyclone Hits Australia

PERTH, Australia (Reuters) - Hundreds of residents on Australia's remote northwest desert coast began mopping up on Friday after a powerful cyclone battered towns with destructive winds and torrential rain.

"We've still got beer and plenty of ice, so the pub will still be open," Don Skipworth, a resident of the small town of Onslow directly hit by Cyclone Glenda, told local radio.

There were no reports of injuries or major damage after Glenda crossed the coast on Thursday night, but emergency officials fear widespread flooding with much of the area already under water after a series of cyclones this year.

Glenda, the second destructive tropical cyclone storm to hit Australia in 10 days, forced the evacuation of hundreds of people in larger towns, shut down oil and gas rigs and disrupted iron ore shipments in the region.

Glenda was one of the most powerful cyclones, rated a category four, with winds up to 235 kmh (145 mph). The cyclone has now been downgraded to a category two, after crossing the coast at Onslow, 1,390 km (860 miles) north of the Western Australia state capital of Perth.

Australia's Bureau of Meteorology ( says Glenda will move further inland and gradually weaken.

"There is still potential for people in the path of the cyclone to get some destructive wind gusts over the course of today and into tomorrow," said weather forecaster James Ashley.

"Certainly (there is a risk of) flooding over a wide area of the northwestern and central and western parts of the state."

Australia's northwest coast is known as "cyclone alley," with tropical storms annually battering the remote area, and emergency officials said the minor damage from Glenda was a result of cyclone-proof buildings and local cyclone disaster plans.

"We haven't had anywhere near the damage expected. It has been really minor like downed trees and downed powerlines," said a spokeswoman for the Fire and Emergency Services Authority.

Emergency services plan to fly volunteers in to help in the recovery process. "We've got choppers on standby to ferry them in if we have to fly them in, because they may not be able to drive in," said State Emergency Services spokesman Peter Mancini.

It was feared Glenda could be as destructive as category five Cyclone Larry, which destroyed homes and crops on Australia's northeastern coast earlier this month. State officials breathed a sigh of relief earlier on Thursday after Glenda tracked passed Karratha, where about half the region's 14,000 people live.

The Pilbara region, which was put on red alert, includes Woodside Petroleum's A$14 billion ($10 billion) North West Shelf liquefied natural gas project at Karratha.

Woodside suspended production at its 100,000-barrel-per-day (bpd) Cossack oilfield in the Indian Ocean, but said on Friday it had sustained no significant damage.

Oil and gas producer Santos Ltd. also shut its 40,000 bpd Mutineer-Exeter oil field. Santos said on Friday its mobile rig had not been damaged and was returning to the field.

BHP Billiton's 10,600 bpd Griffin oil field has been closed since Saturday. BHP and fellow mining giant Rio Tinto both have operations in the Pilbara, which has large deposits of iron ore, and have shut port operations.