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Cyclone pummels Australia's Queensland state

Cyclone Yasi, packing 175-mph winds, damages homes in Queensland, already reeling from recent floods. The storm cuts off power and phone service and produces offshore waves up to 39 feet in height.

February 03, 2011|By Jennifer Bennett, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sydney, Australia — A powerful cyclone roared across the coastline of northeastern Australia late Wednesday and early Thursday, damaging homes, cutting off power to thousands of people and bringing fresh misery to a region still recovering from devastating floods last month.

No deaths were initially reported. Officials said it would take time to assess damage from the storm.

Cyclone Yasi, one of the biggest such storms to hit the country in a century, made landfall about midnight at the resort town of Mission Beach. Packing wind gusts of up to 175 mph, the storm buffeted buildings, tore off roofs, uprooted trees and produced offshore waves up to 39 feet in height.

Queensland state Premier Anna Bligh told ABC television that Mission Beach, along with the towns of Tully and Cardwell, had borne the brunt of the storm, with 90% of buildings destroyed in some areas. The coastline is home to most of the state's larger towns and is a popular destination for tourists.

"These reports are not as bad as I expected to hear from a Category 5 cyclone, but I'm equally mindful that we have people in small communities that we have not heard from yet," Bligh said.

She warned people to remain in their homes.

Ray Scafidi, a Mission Beach resident, told local television that the night had been "just terrifying … but everything's worked out OK. Our roof is still on. We're very grateful.

"It was like a horror movie last night," he said. "I've done a lot of sailing and I felt like I was on the ocean last night."

In many towns, including Townsville, it remained too dangerous to send emergency service workers into the streets to assess damage, as high winds still tossed about the debris.

Electricity and phone service were cut off in many areas and were expected to remain so for several days. Emergency crews could take as many as three days to reach some remote communities.

The storm was downgraded to Category 2 as it moved inland across the sparsely populated state, but there were still strong winds, rain and a high chance of flooding.

Power started failing in northern Queensland towns and cities Wednesday afternoon, leaving as many as 90,000 buildings, including the largest evacuation shelter in Cairns, without electricity by the time the cyclone hit.

At least 10,000 people spent the night in evacuation shelters. Earlier, 30,000 people, mainly hospital patients, had been evacuated from the city of Cairns, about 75 miles north of Mission Beach.

The Queensland government spent most of Monday and Tuesday urging people in the cyclone's path to evacuate; by Tuesday afternoon authorities announced that it was too late.

Queensland, with a population of 4.5 million people spread over an area larger than Alaska, took the brunt of heavy rains last month that left more than 20 people dead and wrecked thousands of homes.

Australia is no stranger to devastating cyclones. In 1974, Cyclone Tracy killed 71 people in the northern city of Darwin.

Bennett is a special correspondent.

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