Huge cyclone threatens Australia towns
Sydney, February 1, 2011
Australia evacuated northeast coastal communities on Tuesday as a massive cyclone bore down on key tourism, sugar and coal mining areas.
Officials warned the powerful storm could sweep far inland into areas already devastated by recent floods.
Cyclone Yasi is expected to generate winds of up to 280 kph (175 mph) when it hits the Queensland state coast late on Wednesday or early Thursday, putting it on a par with Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005.
With a strong monsoon feeding Yasi's 650 km-wide front, the storm was also expected to maintain its intensity long after crossing the coast and could sweep inland as far as the outback mining city of Mt Isa, the weather bureau warned.
"This storm is huge and life threatening," Queensland Premier Anna Bligh told reporters.
Queensland, which accounts for about a fifth of Australia's A$1.3 trillion economy and 90 percent of steelmaking coal exports, worth A$20.5 billion ($20.4 billion), has endured a cruel summer, with floods having swept the eastern seaboard over the past month, killing at least 35 people.
"There's no time for complacency," Whitsunday area Mayor Mike Brunker told local media. "People in low-lying areas are evacuating to friends and family or, if they have to, leave town." The Whitsunday islands are a popular tourism area close to the Great Barrier Reef.
The popular tourist state, home also to the country's main sugar industry, bore the brunt of the floods and now risks being battered by Yasi, which authorities said could be the most powerful tropical storm to ever hit the area.
Island resorts in the Whitsundays and parts of the tourism hubs of Cairns and Townsville were being evacuated along with other areas in the danger zone, between Cooktown in the north and extending south as far as Proserpine, near Mackay.
"This is not a system that's going to cross the coast and rapidly weaken out," Bureau of Meteorology senior forecaster Gordon Banks said, warning winds could reach up to 280 kph and the storm could reach Mt Isa, 900 km inland.
"We could see this system pushing well in across northern Queensland as a significant tropical cyclone with damaging winds and very heavy rainfall," Banks said.
Australia's largest coal freight company, QR National, temporarily suspended operations on two rail networks in preparation for the front, the company said.
Its major Goonyella network, feeding into the coking-coal export terminals of Dalrymple Bay and Hay Point, and its smaller Newlands line were suspended on Monday night, a spokesman said.
The state's coal mines are mostly inland and are still struggling to pump water out of their pits after flooding. The Queensland Resources Council, an industry body, estimated coal miners would take until March to return to normal, even without the impact of cyclones.
Queensland Premier Bligh said Yasi could be the worst tropical storm the state had seen, with potential to cause "powerful and deadly" flash flooding in coastal areas. Ports were closed between Cairns and Mackay.
Last month's floods swamped around 30,000 homes, destroyed roads and rail lines and crippled. - Reuters