A terrifying cyclone barreling towards Australia strengthened to the most dangerous threat level yesterday, shaping up as one most lethal storms in the country’s history.
As the winds whipped up by Severe Tropical Cyclone Yasi began wreaking havoc along Queensland coast, Queensland Premier Anna Bligh warned the state’s 1 million residents it was too late to escape “the most catastrophic storm to ever hit our coast.”
Yasi, the worst storm in a century, was expected to slam into the coast around midnight last night, the Bureau of Meteorology said, after it was upgraded early in the day to a category five storm from category four.
“This impact is likely to be more life-threatening than any experienced during recent generations,” it said in an ominous warning ahead of the first category five storm to hit the area since 1918.
Wild advance winds tore the roof off a building near where 500 people were taking shelter in Innisfail, which lies directly in Yasi’s path, Innisfail Mayor Bill Shannon said.
“The eye is five hours away and it’s already causing damage so it’s pretty worrying,” he told the AAP news agency as Yasi churned 175km northeast of the town.
Power lines and trees were felled along the coast by early gusts, with an offshore weather station clocking 185kph winds before it was destroyed. Yasi, which measures up to 800km across, was on course to hit the area between Innisfail, south of the tourist hub of Cairns, and Cardwell, 100km south of Innisfail.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said Yasi looked like the worst cyclone in Australian history and said the nation was with Queenslanders as they faced “many, many dreadful, frightening hours” waiting for it to strike.
“This is probably the worst cyclone that our nation has ever seen. In the hours of destruction that are coming to them, all of Australia is going to be thinking of them,” Gillard said.
Yasi was expected to generate highly destructive winds of up to 295kph, up to 700mm of rain and storm surges that are threatening to flood towns and tourist resorts.
The storm is so enormous that it would almost cover the US or large parts of Europe, News Ltd newspapers reported. People further from the seafront who did not evacuate were told to batten down and prepare a “safe room,” like a bathroom or a basement, with mattresses, pillows, a radio, food and water supplies to wait out the cyclone.
Thousands of people have already fled the area and seaside residents were urged to desert their homes ahead of a dangerous storm surge of between 2.3m and 7m that was likely to cause major flooding.
Airports and ports in Cairns and other cities along the coast were shut to traffic yesterday as winds gathered strength.
More than 10,000 people were sheltering in 20 evacuation centers across the region — some so packed that people were turned away — while tens of thousands more were staying with family and friends.
Anticipating a massive relief operation, the military was readying supply ships with aircraft landing capability to help with search and rescue once the storm passed.