Cyclone Yasi bears down on Australia's coast
Cyclone Yasi is due to hit north of Queensland's main waterlogged area, but emergency services are already stretched and the whole state is flood-weary.
Strong winds and driving rain began buffeting northeast Australia as one of the country's biggest storms bore down Wednesday while residents huddled in evacuation centers or hid at home in bathrooms behind piles of blankets and mattresses.Skip to next paragraph
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Australian leaders issued warnings of potential devastation for cities and towns dotted along a stretch of coast more than 190 miles (300 kilometers) long in north Queensland state, in an area considered the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef.
The storm will compound problems in Queensland, which has already been hit by months of flooding that killed 35 people and inundated hundreds of communities. Yasi is due to hit north of the main waterlogged area, but emergency services are already stretched and the whole state is flood-weary.
"This is a cyclone of savagery and intensity," Prime Minister Julia Gillard said in a nationally televised news conference. "People are facing some really dreadful hours in front of them."
Still, many in the storm's path were stoic. Cairns resident Jane Alcorn banned those who planned to shelter with her in the garage of her apartment complex from panicking.
"There's no crying, no hysterics," said Alcorn. "It's going to be loud, it's going to be scary. But we've got each other."
The first of Cyclone Yasi's winds began howling throughout Cairns as night fell Wednesday, with the storm expected to make landfall sometime around midnight.
In Innisfail, a town about 55 miles (90 kilometers) south of Cairns that is nearly in the direct path of the storm, Mayor Bill Shannon said he saw the roof torn off a building near the local government building where some 500 people are sheltering.
"We're just hoping and praying we can all get through the night," Shannon said.
Winds at the center of the storm were gusting up to 186 mph (300 kph), and the front was about 300 miles (500 kilometers) across. The worst winds were expected to last up to four hours, though blustery conditions and heavy rain could last for 24 hours.
The storm will lash the coast with up to 28 inches (700 millimeters) of rain and send tidal surges that are likely to flood coastal regions, 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. The storm was forecast to continue inland at cyclonestrength for two days. It was unclear what the damage to the Great Barrier Reef would be, experts said.