Giant cyclone closes on Australia,shelters run out of room

CAIRNS (Australia): Police turned desperate people away from overcrowded shelters in northeastern Australia on Wednesday, Feb 2 as one the most powerful cyclones in the country's history bore down on a string of popular tourist cities lining the coast.

The first major gusts hit coastal Queensland as frightened residents and backpackers scrambled to find safe havens with just hours before Cyclone Yasi delivers its full wrath.

Selwyn Hughes, turned away from a packed shopping centre acting as a shelter in the coastal tourist city of Cairns, stood with his family in the uncovered carpark and said his only comfort for the moment was in numbers.

"There are so many of us here. Surely they have to do something, find somewhere safer to move us to before it arrives," Hughes said, squatting on a pink suitcase with his five children, aged two to 13.

Engineers warned that with winds reaching up to 300km/h, Yasi could blow apart even "cyclone proof" homes built in recent years because of concerns of the growing threats of cyclones.

"We are facing a storm of catastrophic proportions," Queensland state premier Anna Bligh said after Yasi was upgraded to a maximum-strength category five storm.

"All aspects of this cyclone are going to be terrifying and potentially very, very damaging."

She had daunting words for those yet to find a refuge.

"It is now time for all movement and evacuation to cease," she said, adding 10,680 people had now crammed into evacuation centres.

More than 400,000 people live in the cyclone's expected path, which includes the cities of Cairns, Townsville and Mackay. The entire stretch is popular with tourists and includes Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

Satellite images showed Yasi as a massive storm system covering an area bigger than Italy or New Zealand, with the cyclone predicted to be the strongest ever to hit Australia.

The greatest threat to life could come from surges of water forecast at up to seven metres above normal high tide levels in the worst-affected coastal areas, Bligh said. The storm may hit when the tide is high.

Mines, rail lines and coal ports have all shut down, with officials warning the storm could drive inland for hundreds of kilometres, hitting rural and mining areas still struggling to recover after months of devastating floods.

Outside a shuttered night market in Cairns, nervous backpackers tried to flag down cars and reach temporary evacuation centres at a nearby university.

"We are terrified. We have had almost no information and have never seen storms like this," said Marlim Flagar, 20, from Sweden.

In Townsville, the streets were deserted as the first rains and winds lashed the tropical city. Prime Minister Julia Gillard has put 4,000 soldiers based in Townsville on standby to help once the cyclone passes, as well as military ships and helicopters.

The bureau of meteorology said in a bulletin that the impact of Yasi "posed a serious threat to life and property" between the main impact zone between Cairns and Townsville.

Social media sites were being used to give descriptions of the early stages of the storm.

"Palm trees starting to get a serious bend on. Yasi still 5 odd hours away," MIJBender in Townsville said via Twitter.

Australia has strict building standards and Queensland suffers regular cyclones, but experts warned that many homes and buildings may not be able to withstand winds of this magnitude.

"The building regulations make things a lot better off at lower wind speeds but once you get to extreme cases you are in uncharted ground," said Robert Leicester, a researcher at the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, who has studied the impact of previous cyclones.

Hundreds of people were lining up in a supermarket on the western side of Cairns, stocking up on staples such as bread, milk and tinned goods.

The cyclone is expected to make landfall at 10pm local time (1200 GMT) on the Queensland coast between Cairns and Innisfail. Its strength is on a par with Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005. Yasi knocked out meteorology equipment on Willis Island in the Coral Sea, 450 km east of Cairns.

Some rain was starting to fall and winds were picking up in Cairns. The main streets were largely deserted. Shops were closed and windows taped to stop shards of flying glass.

At a coffee shop on the Cairns waterfront, Scott Warren covered windows with black plastic sheeting and sandbags from a pickup truck, trying to work out how high he would need to build the barrier to escape a possible surge of seawater.

"We get a heap of cyclones every year, but this one has got everyone's attention," Warren said. "We're hoping for the best, but expecting the worst to be honest."

State premier Bligh warned that the mobile phone network may go down and said current estimates were that 150,000-200,000 people could lose power if winds topple transmission towers.

She also said that those in low-lying areas faced a risk of flooding from storm surges, although authorities still hoped the cyclone would hit land before high tide, limiting the impact of flooding.

In Townsville alone, the storm surge could flood up to 30,000 homes, according to the town's web site.

The military has been helping to evacuate nearly 40,000 people from low-lying coastal areas, and also from the two major hospitals in Cairns.

At Cairns airport, people queued from dawn to catch the last flights out of the city before the terminal was locked down and sandbagged against potential storm surges.

"We're so relieved to be on," said Paul Davis, from Sydney, as he stood in the line with his partner Sylvia Leveridge and three-year-old daughter Ella.

Queensland, which accounts for about a fifth of Australia's economy and 90 percent of steelmaking coal exports worth about A$20 billion (RM61.53 billion) a year, has had a cruel summer, with floods sweeping the eastern seaboard in recent months, killing 35 people.

The state is also home to most of Australia's sugar industry and losses for the industry from Yasi could exceed A$500 million, including crop losses and damage to farming infrastructure, industry group Queensland Canegrowers said. — Reuters

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