March 20, 2006

Tropical Cyclone Devastates Northeastern Australia

By David Crisafulli

INNISFAIL, Australia -- One of the most powerful cyclones to hit Australia in decades lashed the northern city of Cairns on Monday with winds of up to 290 kph (180 mph), ripping roofs off houses, uprooting trees and flattening crops.

There were no reports of deaths by late Monday but authorities said about 30 people had received minor injuries.

The eye of Cyclone Larry crossed the coast just south of Cairns, the sugar-growing town of Innisfail taking the maximum-category five storm's full force as it left a trail of destruction along 300 km of coast.

Larry flattened cane fields and banana crops and roads were strewn with trees and power lines. The roofs of homes were ripped off "like the top of sardine cans," a Reuters witness said.

"She was howling like a banshee. The walls were getting sucked in and out and making an incredible sound," Paul Leyton told Reuters as he stood outside his home, which had lost its roof, in the main street of Innisfail.

As emergency services began to survey the damage, the Tropical Cyclone Warning Center in Brisbane was already monitoring Cyclone Wati, currently at category two strength. The storm, about 2,000 km to the east of Cairns, was taking a similar track to Larry, the center said.

"As Larry goes, we have got to worry about Wati," meteorologist Don Cameron told Reuters, adding it was not yet known when it might strike the coast of Queensland state.

Prime Minister John Howard, who earlier put Australia's military on alert to help with rescue operations, said he would visit the worst-hit areas in the coming days. The military had already started to arrive late on Monday.

"Thank heavens it does not appear as though there have been any very serious injures," Howard told Australian television.

Police in Innisfail, a town of about 8,500 people, said more than half of the houses there had sustained some damage, while Wayne Coutts, from Queensland's emergency disaster service, said damage was so far limited to flooding, uprooted trees and damage to houses.

"We've even seen a few homes that you might as well say have been totally demolished -- it looked like they'd exploded," Coutts told reporters.


The Bureau of Meteorology said Larry was similar in size to Cyclone Tracy, which killed 71 people and destroyed about 70 percent of the northern city of Darwin in 1974.

Cairns is the main tourist center of north Queensland state, and is a base for visitors to the nearby Great Barrier Reef and inland tropical rainforests.

Up to 250,000 people live in the area, which is also the center of Australia's banana industry and accounts for 25 percent of Australia's sugar cane production.

"We are the tropical fruit bowl of Australia. I would say every tree has been flattened," local mayor Neil Clarke told ABC television. "It looks like an atomic bomb has hit the place." Australia is the third-largest exporter of raw sugar in the world and in some areas the cane crop has been destroyed.

Around 90 percent of banana production was also believed to have been wiped out in the Tully area near Innisfail, the center of Australian banana production, said Tony Heidrich, chief executive officer of the Australian Banana Growers' Council.

The storm forced thousands of people to take shelter or evacuate low-lying areas because authorities were concerned the cyclone would cause a tidal surge. But the surge did not eventuate.

Cyclone Tracy in 1974 caused insured losses of A$837 million ($611 million) in today's dollars, the third largest insured loss from a natural disaster in Australia. A 45-minute hailstorm in Sydney in 1999 caused the biggest insured loss of A$2 billion.

(Additional reporting by Michael Byrnes in Sydney)