Still cleaning up from devastating floods that killed some 32 people, residents along a wide swath of Queensland’s north coast are now being told to brace themselves for what may become the largest cyclone the “sunshine state” has ever faced.
Cyclone Yasi is expected to slam into the Queensland coast around 1 a.m. Thursday local time, packing winds of more than 250 k.p.h. (155 m.p.h.). This puts it on a par with the force of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005 and clocked winds of 175 m.p.h., before weakening as it neared the coast.
A coastal warning has been declared for residents living between Cooktown and Sarina, an area that takes in major population, tourism and agricultural centers, including Cairns. Some 250,000 people are likely to be affected by the cyclone.
“This storm is huge and life threatening,” Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said on Tuesday. “I know many of us will feel that Queensland has already borne about as much as we can bear when it comes to disasters and storms, but more is being asked of us. I am confident that we are able to rise to this next challenge.”
Mandatory evacuation orders were issued Monday to residents living in low-lying coastal areas along Yasi’s path. Two hospitals in Cairns have been evacuated due to concerns about storm surges and flash flooding. Holidaymakers staying in luxury resorts dotted throughout the Whitsunday Islands have also been evacuated. Airlines scrambled to put on extra flights on Tuesday before airports were closed, denying allegations they were price gouging.
Residents living in higher areas have been told to prepare to face a 500 km (300 mile)-wide cyclone with an eye that could take more than an hour to pass. Major roads throughout affected areas are expected to be closed on Wednesday.
Yasi is also threatening around a third of Queensland’s sugar cane crop. Australia is the third largest sugar exporter in the world and Queensland grows more than 90 percent of the country’s sugar cane. The state’s banana crop, another major earner, is also expected to be severely impacted. This latest hit comes as Queenslanders clean up from floods that have caused some $5.6 billion in damage.
Forecasters have warned that Yasi – a high Category 4 system – will hit with more ferocity than Cyclone Larry – a medium Category 4 system – which damaged 10,000 homes and caused $1.5 billion in damage when it struck the Queensland coast in 2006.
Yesterday, however, many of those in the storm’s path were displaying the resilience their state is famed for throughout the rest of Australia.
“The city is on alert, most of it is shut down, but we are still serving,” the waitress at the Grand Hotel in Cairns said. “We don’t have any plans to shut down.”
For a state that simply cannot absorb any more water, the prospect of torrential rain looms as a new blow. But in something of a silver lining, forecasters are cautiously optimistic that Yasi will not drop the majority of its rain on Queensland’s central catchment area which was hardest hit in the recent floods.