A powerful cyclone ripped across Australia’s north-east coast, blasting apart houses, laying waste to banana crops and leaving boats lying in the streets of wind and wave-swept towns.
Emergency services fanned out as day broke to assess the damage across a disaster zone stretching more than 306km in Queensland state, using chainsaws and other equipment to cut through trees and debris blocking roads.
State premier Anna Bligh said no deaths or serious injuries had been reported but bad news could yet emerge from many places still cut off. Several thousand people were expected to be left homeless, she said.
Cyclone Yasi was moving inland and losing power today, but drenching rains were still falling, adding to a state where Australia’s worst flooding in decades has killed 35 people since late November.
Hundreds of thousands of people spent the night huddled in evacuation centres or in their homes as the storm made landfall, packing howling winds gusting to 299km/h and causing tidal surges that swamped coastal areas.
“Nothing’s been spared. The devastation is phenomenal, like nothing I’ve ever experienced,” David Brook, resort manager at Mission Beach, where the core of the storm hit the coast, said.
“Vegetation has been reduced to sticks,” said Mission Beach police officer Sgt Dan Gallagher.
At Innisfail, acres of banana trees lay snapped in half, the crops ruined, and power lines had been snapped in half by the winds.
The main road leading south was cut by tidal floodwaters, and hundreds of cars were parked nearby as people who had evacuated yesterday tried to get home to see what was left.
Towns around Mission Beach were hardest hit. In Tully, a town of 3,500 people, one in three houses were reported to either have been demolished by the storm or had the roof ripped off, Ms Bligh said.
Further south, emergency workers had cut their way into the coastal community of Cardwell and found older houses wrecked and boats pushed up into the town, she said. The entire community was believed to have evacuated before the storm.
Electricity supplies were cut to almost 180,000 houses in the region − a major fruit and sugarcane-growing area and also considered a tourist gateway to the Great Barrier Reef − and police warned people to stay inside until the danger from fallen power lines and other problems was past.
More than 10,000 people in 20 evacuation centres were being told they could not leave yet.
“I’m very relieved this morning, but I do stress these are very early reports,” Bligh said of the information that no-one had been killed overnight. “It’s a long way to go before I say we’ve dodged any bullets.”