Powerful storm strikes Australian coast - East Valley Tribune: Nation / World

Powerful storm strikes Australian coast

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Posted: Monday, March 20, 2006 5:25 am | Updated: 4:38 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

CAIRNS, Australia - The most powerful storm to hit Australia in decades laid waste to its northeastern coast on Monday, mowing down sugar and banana plantations and leaving possibly thousands of people homeless.

But there were no reports of serious injuries, reflecting the preparedness of residents in the storm-prone region.

About a dozen people were treated at regional hospitals for minor cuts and abrasions, said Jim Guthrie, a spokesman for the state of Queensland's health department. Many people had taken shelter before the storm, or hunkered down in their homes.

"This is far north Queensland and most people live with cyclones year in, year out. They do take precautions," he said. "We've come out of it extremely well."

Cyclone Larry crashed ashore about 60 miles south of Cairns as a Category 5 storm, packing winds of up to 180 mph.

Cairns is a popular jumping-off point for visits to the Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest coral system which runs parallel to the coast for more than 1,400 miles. Authorities said it was too early to assess possible damage to the reef, visited by nearly two million tourists each year.

In Innisfail, a farming town of 8,500 that was hardest hit, Mayor Neil Clarke estimated that thousands were left homeless. He told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. the airport was being cleared to house people in tents. More than 50,000 people were without power.

The storm was so bad at its height overnight that police were unable to venture out and help terrified residents who called to say the winds had ripped roofs off buildings and destroyed their homes. As emergency services fanned out across the region later to assess the damage, they encountered scenes of devastation.

"The damage to dwellings is very extensive," Prime Minister John Howard told the Nine Network from Melbourne. "Thank heavens it does not appear as though there have been any very serious injuries."

Howard said he would visit the stricken region in coming days and the government would provide aid to homeless families. He said he was confident the cyclone would not cause the kind of chaos seen in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina last year.

"Australians are very good at responding to these things because everybody pitches in without restraint," he told reporters.

The main street of Innisfail was littered with the mangled remains of corrugated tin and iron roofs and shredded fronds from beach side palm trees. Queensland state leader Peter Beattie said more than half the homes in the town were damaged.

"Some have been flattened, roofs have been taken off," he told Macquarie Radio. "The property damage has been immense."

The storm also devastated banana and sugar cane plantations, the region's economic mainstay. Officials said damage would run into hundreds of millions of dollars.

Des Hensler, an Innisfail resident, took shelter by himself in a church, with water up to his ankles. "I don't get scared much, but this is something to make any man tremble in his boots," he told the Seven television network.

Australia's military said it would send a medical team to the region. Helicopters would conduct low-level damage assessment flights.

State Disaster Coordination Center spokesman Peter Rekers warned residents to stay on their guard for deadly animals stirred up by the storm.

"Most of the casualties and deaths resulting from cyclones happen after the storm has passed," he warned. "Keep your kids away from flooded drains, be aware of snakes and crocodiles. Those guys will have had a bad night too."

The storm was the most powerful to hit Australia since Christmas Eve in 1974, when Cyclone Tracy destroyed the northern city of Darwin, killing 65 people.

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