Cyclone slams coastal area in Australia
Well-prepared towns see only minor injuries, but big damage to property

CAIRNS, Australia - The most powerful hurricane 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 30 people were treated at hospitals for minor cuts and abrasions, said Ben Creagh, a spokesman for Queensland state Department of Emergency Services. Many people had fled their homes to shelter in evacuation centers ahead of the storm, while some hunkered down in their homes.

“This is far north Queensland and most people live with cyclones year in, year out,” Jim Guthrie, Queensland’s health department spokesman, said of hurricanes, known here as cyclones. “They do take precautions. 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.

Great Barrier Reef damage?
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 100,000 people were without power, authorities said.

“We are the tropical fruit bowl of Australia. I would say every tree has been flattened,” Clarke said. “It looks like an atomic bomb has hit the place.”

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.

Half of town’s homes hit
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.”

Creagh said many people evacuated voluntarily over the weekend and would likely return to their homes Tuesday. Some who did not flee the town sheltered in a local college, he added.

“Tomorrow is going to be a big day” with residents returning to their homes, he said. “There will be some devastated people.”

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.

Danger of snakes, crocodiles
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.”

And the Tropical Cyclone Warning Center in Brisbane was monitoring another cyclone, currently at category two strength.

Wati, about 1,200 miles to the east of Cairns, was taking a similar track to Larry, the center said.

“As Larry goes, we have got to worry about Wati,” meteorologist Don Cameron told Reuters, adding it was not yet known when it might strike the coast of Queensland state.

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

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