March 30, 2006

High Winds Lash Western Australia as Cyclone Nears

PERTH, Australia -- Hundreds of people were evacuated and thousands more prepared to ride out a severe cyclone bearing down on the northwest Australian coast on Thursday, carrying winds of up to 155 mph.

Gale-force winds of at least 62 mph were lashing the coast as tropical Cyclone Glenda approached, emergency officials said. The cyclone had already shut oil and gas fields and disrupted iron ore shipments.

It was expected to roar ashore within hours between the iron ore and tourism town of Karratha, about 950 miles north of Perth, and nearby Onslow in the sparsely populated and ruggedly beautiful Pilbara region of Western Australia state.

About 500 people had already been evacuated from Karratha but Glenda was now too close for any more to safely leave their homes, local officials said.

"Most people are staying in their own homes. There have been some evacuations that were done last night," Roeburn regional council president Danielle Nazzari told Sky Television.

The Pilbara region, which has been put on red alert, is home to more than 12,000 people and includes Woodside Petroleum's A$14 billion ($10 billion) North West Shelf liquefied natural gas project at Karratha.

Glenda is a category four storm, one below the most powerful grade, and is moving slowly through an area known as "cyclone alley" which is regularly swept by storms at this time of year.

Emergency workers feared it could be as destructive as Cyclone Larry, which destroyed homes and crops on Australia's northeastern coast 10 days ago, or Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the U.S. city of New Orleans last August.

"This does have the potential to do what happened in the eastern states and what happened in America," State Emergency Services official Steve Cable told Australian television.

"Everything is saturated, water is lying everywhere. Flooding is going to be a real problem," he said.

Australia's Bureau of Meteorology also warned of dangerous flooding from abnormally high tides and damaging waves in a region already awash from five previous cyclones this season.

"Residents between Karratha and Onslow are specifically warned of the potential of a very dangerous storm tide as the cyclone crosses the coast," the bureau said in its latest cyclone warning update (

Local television showed residents battening down as the cyclone approached, fastening steel grilles over their windows or tying caravans down with thumb-thick wire cables as rain and strong winds whipped through Karratha and nearby towns.

"If it hits with full impact I do not expect to come back to anything. I may not even come back and look for it," one unidentified resident said.

Woodside on Tuesday suspended production at its 100,000-barrel-per-day (bpd) Cossack oilfield in the Indian Ocean, while oil and gas producer Santos Ltd. has shut its 40,000 bpd Mutineer-Exeter oil field.

BHP Billiton's 10,600 bpd Griffin oil field has been closed since Saturday, after it was threatened by a smaller storm.

BHP Billiton and fellow mining giant Rio Tinto both have operations in the Pilbara, which has large deposits of iron ore.

Rio said its port operations at Dampier and Cape Lambert had shut and ships had put to sea. BHP said it had also closed its port operations at nearby Port Hedland.

Rio said on Tuesday bad weather meant the company would fall 5 million tons short of its first-quarter iron ore output target. It still expected 2006 output to rise 14 percent on last year's 158 million tons.