CAIRNS, Australia (AP) — Strong winds and driving rain began buffeting northeast Australia as one of the country's biggest-ever storms bore down Wednesday while residents huddled in evacuation centers or hid at home in bathrooms behind piles of blankets and mattresses.
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Australian leaders issued dire warnings of potential devastation for cities and towns dotted along a stretch of the coast more than 190 miles (300 kilometers) long in the north Queensland state, in an area considered the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef.
"This is a cyclone of savagery and intensity," Prime Minister Julia Gillard said in a nationally television news conference. "People are facing some really dreadful hours in front of them."
A few hours before Cyclone Yasi was due to make landfall, officials said it was too late for people to evacuate their homes and announced that shelters were closed, in an effort to keep people off the streets. Police at one center in the city of Cairns turned people away saying it was full.
Yasi roared coastward bearing destructive winds gusting up to 186 mph (300 kph), and was expected to strike sometime between 10 p.m. and midnight Wednesday. Satellite tracking showed a front some 300 miles (500 kilometers) across, with an eye that officials said would take around an hour to pass over any one point.
It also will lash the coast with up to 28 inches (700 millimeters) of rain, and will send tidal surges far deeper inland than usual, the Bureau of Meteorology said.
The bureau said most at risk was a band about 150 miles (240 kilometers) long between the tourist city of Cairns and the sugar cane-growing town of Ingham, though warnings stretched as far as Townsville, about 190 miles (300 kilometers) south of Cairns.
Cairns, about 2,250 kilometers (1,400 miles) north of Sydney, has a population of some 165,000 people and Townsville has many more, with dozens of smaller communities interspersed between them.
Queensland state officials have been telling people for days to stock up on bottled water and food, and to prepare homes by boarding or taping up windows. People in low-lying or poorly protected areas have been told to move in with family or friends on safer ground or move to evacuation centers.
"It's such a big storm — it's a monster, killer storm," Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said, adding that the only previous storm measured in the state at such strength was in 1918. "This impact is likely to be more life threatening than any experienced during recent generations."
By late afternoon, more than 10,000 people were sheltering in 20 evacuation centers, including one set up in a shopping mall in downtown Cairns. People were camped out the hallways with whatever belongings they could carry, such as blankets, camp chairs and snacks.
"It is now time for all movement to cease," Bligh said in Brisbane, the Queensland capital.
Earlier Wednesday, police told people to get off the streets of Cairns. "Everyone's gotta go now," one officer told pedestrians strolling near the waterfront. "The water is coming NOW."
Alcorn, a 42-year-old veteran of Queensland storms, said she had already banned those sheltering with them from panicking during the storm.
"There's no crying, no hysterics," she said. "It's going to be loud, it's going to be scary. But we've got each other."
Power supplies and mobile phone services were expected to be cut for thousands of people.
The timing of Yasi's expected landfall, just after high tide, meant high storm surges of at least 6.5 feet (two meters) were likely to flood significant areas along the coast, the weather bureau said.
The worst winds were expected to last up to four hours, though windy conditions and heavy rain could last for 24 hours. The storm was expected to carry cyclone-force winds up to 250 miles (400 kilometers) inland.
The storm compounds misery in Queensland, which has been in the grip of
Australia's worst flooding in decades, with some hundreds of communities
inundated, including large parts of Brisbane, and 35 people killed.
Yasi is due to hit farther north than the flood-stricken area, but
emergency services are already stretched and the whole state is
The storm will whip over part of the Great Barrier Reef, which stretches
1,600 miles (2,600 kilometers) along Queensland's coast. The reef's
park authority said in a statement it was too early to predict what the
impact would be on the world's largest living organism.
Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, an expert at the Global Change Institute at the
University of Queensland, said cyclones usually cause localized damage
to the reef, and the extent would depend on factors such as how fast is
passes over. Usually, damaged parts of the reef recover from cyclone
damage in one to three decades, he said.