Storm batters Australian coast towns; no deaths

People evacuated centers and stayed at home in the wake of Cyclone Yasi; thousands are left homeless.

australia cyclone 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
australia cyclone 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
One of the most powerful storms ever recorded in Australia  pulled houses apart and snapped power poles as it ripped across already flood-sodden Queensland state Thursday, leaving authorities relieved that no one was killed.
Officials had issued days of increasingly dire warnings, and said lives were spared because people followed instructions to flee to evacuation centers or bunker themselves at home in dozens of cities and towns in Cyclone Yasi's path on the northeast coast.
Thousands of people were left homeless.
The storm was as powerful as forecasters predicted — ferocious winds up to 170 mph (280 kph) at the core, flood-inducing rain and tidal surges that sent waves crashing ashore two blocks into seaside towns.
It wasn't as deadly as expected, though several small towns directly under Yasi's eye were devastated, hundreds of millions of dollars of banana and sugarcane crops smashed and power to more than 180,000 homes severed.
Verna Kohn huddled with her husband, daughter and two granddaughters in her wooden home in Tully as the storm roared overhead when the roof sheeting began to tear free. They fled to a small downstairs room and spent the night sitting in a tight cluster on a bed of pillows and listening to the radio, praying the house would hold up.
"It was eerie and whistling and whirling and popping and girls screaming," Kohn recalled Thursday as she stood inside her sodden home.
Everything was drenched; mattresses, carpet, floral curtains, stacks of hand-sewn quilts she'd spent years crafting. On the ground floor, water dripped through the ceiling into saucepans and buckets scattered about. Half her roof had been torn away, and windows ripped off. A neighbor's palm tree lay across her yard.
Yasi crossed the coast around midnight at the most-destructive category five rating, and the swirling storm pattern immediately began weakening once it was over land. Still, it was strong enough to hold a category one cyclone rating some 500 miles (800 kilometers) inland late Thursday where it was threatening to cause flooding in the Outback town of Mount Isa.
The disaster zone was north of Australia's worst flooding in decades, which swamped an area in Queensland state the size and Germany and France combined and killed 35 people during weeks of high water until last month.
But the storm added to the state's woes, and was sure to add substantially to the estimated $5.6 billion in damage since late November.
"We will meet the damages bill from the federal budget, it will require cutbacks in other areas, there is no point sugarcoating that," Prime Minister Julia Gillard said Thursday in Canberra. The government has already announced a special tax nationwide to help pay for the earlier flooding.
Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said several thousand people would be temporarily homeless due to the storm, and Red Cross Australia and local governments were working on registering people in need and finding places to house them, including among volunteers.
Emergency Services Minister Neil Roberts said initial assessments were that more than 130 houses were damaged in the three hardest-hit towns, including 60 in the beachfront community of Cardwell. Emergency services workers who used chain saws to cut their way through debris into the town on Thursday found boats laying in the streets where they had been deposited by tidal surges, Bligh said.
It would take days to make a proper assessment of the damage, and fatalities could yet emerge.
"It's a long way to go before I say we've dodged any bullets," Bligh said.
The main coastal highway was a slalom course of downed trees and power lines, surrounded by scenes of devastation: Roofs peeled back from houses, fields of sugar cane and banana shredded and flattened, lush hillside forests stripped of every leaf.
"It was really terrifying, but we were safe," said Barbara Kendall, who spent a sleepless night in a basement parking garage with her husband and five cats after being evacuated from their coastal home at Kurrimine Beach. "It's really hard to describe. All I could hear was the screeching of the wind."
Officials kept more than 10,000 people who spent the night encamped in evacuation centers set up in shopping malls and other heavy-built locations inside until around lunchtime Thursday to avoid lingering dangers such as downed power lines.
In Townsville and Cairns — the two major towns that book-ended the threatened zone — evacuees emerged to streets strewn with branches and light debris such as downed street signs. Officials said no major structural damage was done, though parts of Townsville were flooded.
Smaller communities proved to be more vulnerable.
Ahead of the storm, authorities had repeatedly warned the country to expect widespread destruction and likely deaths.
"This was the worst cyclone this country has experienced, potentially, for 100 years and I think that due to very good planning, a very good response ... we've been able to keep people safe," Roberts said.
Australia's huge, sparsely populated tropical north is battered annually 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.
Amid the chaos, a bit of happy news: a baby girl was born at a Cairns evacuation center just before dawn with the help of a British midwife on holiday, councilor Linda Cooper said.