Australia's Cyclone Yasi loses steam

Cyclone Yasi slammed into Australia's northeastern coast early Thursday, tearing off roofs, rattling walls and leaving thousands of people without power.

'Catastrophic' storm makes landfall

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Cyclone Yasi slammed into Australia's northeastern coast early Thursday, tearing off roofs, rattling walls and leaving thousands of people without power.

What began as a Category 5 cyclone — the maximum rating — was downgraded to Category 2 strength by 7 a.m. local time, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology said. The system made landfall near Mission Beach, south of Innisfail, just after midnight Thursday.

Yasi, which had been billed as the most powerful storm to hit the country in generations, forced more than 10,000 people to flee to 20 evacuation centres in a danger zone stretching 300 kilometres.

Anna Bligh, the premier of Queensland state, said she had not been told of any deaths or serious injuries.


Follow the track of Cyclone Yasi

Source: Australian Broadcasting Corporation

"What I'm very relieved about is that we have yet to hear any reports from any police or any other source of any serious injury or fatality," Bligh told Sky TV. "All of our evacuation centres report that they've had no structural damage overnight."

Although weakened, the system still presents dangerous winds and rain, meteorologists warned.

The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reported that the north Queensland town of Tully was "a scene of mass devastation" Thursday morning with downed power lines and homes missing rooftops.

More than 170,000 homes were without power, according to the Brisbane Times website.

Bligh had warned earlier that \the cyclone was potentially the "most catastrophic storm ever seen" in the region.

Surprisingly, in Thursday's daylight, it appeared that the popular tourist city of Cairns — located in the cyclone's path — had been spared the worst.

"I'm very surprised this morning after the gale-force winds that came through last night, Cairns has survived, and survived very, very well," said Cairns Coun. Alan Blake, the deputy chair of the local disaster management group.

Town evacuated

Earlier, dozens of cities and towns were whipped by winds that forecasters said could gust up to 290 km/h.

"It's a phenomenal speed," said Neil Bennett from the Tropical Cyclone Warning Centre. "Unless your house is exceptionally well built, there will be damage, there will be trees down, incredibly dangerous conditions, loose objects flying around as well." 

In Cairns, power was cut to the main evacuation centre at Earlville shopping centre, where about 2,000 people had taken shelter.

Tully resident Ross Sorbello described feeling his house shake from the wind. "The wind and rain outside are howling; it's a horrible sound," he said.

Waves off Townville, in north Queensland,  had been measured at 6.6 metres Wednesday afternoon, the highest recorded since measurements began in 1975, Bligh said.

A storm surge of seven metres above the high tide mark could hit some areas, including the coastal town of Cardwell, which was evacuated, Bligh said.

In anticipation of the storm, thousands of people in northern Queensland fled their homes. Many took shelter in shopping centres and underground parking lots. Patients were flown to hospitals in Brisbane.

"This is a cyclone of savagery and intensity," Prime Minister Julia Gillard said in a nationally televised news conference. "People are facing really dreadful hours in front of them."

Shelters closed

Hours before the storm was expected to make landfall, officials tried to keep people off the streets. They said the shelters were closed and told some residents it was too late to evacuate their homes.

A satellite image shows Cyclone Yasi as it approaches Queensland, Australia, on Wednesday. ((Jeff Schmaltz/Associated Press/NASA))

The coast was also expected to get up to 700 millimetres of rain. The area at most risk was a 240-kilometre stretch between Cairns, with a population of 165,000, and the town of Ingham. But warnings were also issued as far as Townsville, about 300 kilometres south of Cairns.

State disaster co-ordinator Ian Stewart said people should move to rooms at the centre of their houses during the storm — usually the bathroom — as they are structurally safest and usually have no windows that could shatter. People should bring mattresses and other items to hide behind in case of flying debris, sturdy shoes, and raincoats in case roofs are ripped off.

The worst winds were forecast to last up to four hours, though windy conditions and heavy rain could last for 24 hours.

Australia's huge, sparsely populated tropical north is battered each year by about six cyclones — called typhoons throughout much of Asia and hurricanes in the Western Hemisphere. Building codes have been strengthened since Cyclone Tracy devastated the city of Darwin in 1974, killing 71 in one of Australia's worst natural disasters.

With files from The Associated Press and the Australian Broadcasting Corp.