Australians voiced relief and surprise after one of the world’s most powerful cyclones spared the nation’s northeast coast from expected devastation yesterday, with no reported deaths despite winds tearing off roofs and toppling trees.
Cyclone Yasi, roughly the size of Italy and with winds forecast to hit at up to 300kph, threatened Australia with its second major natural disaster in as many months, but ended up missing heavily populated areas.
The storm destroyed about 15 percent of the nation’s sugar cane crop, pushing world prices to the highest in three decades, and prompted the evacuation of Xstrata PLC’s Mount Isa copper mine, which lay in its path.
“It’s amazing no one was killed. The wind was howling like a banshee,” said farmer Nathan Fisher, speaking out the window of his four-wheel-drive vehicle as he returned to his property from a shelter in the small town of Innisfail.
But building engineers questioned whether Cyclone Yasi, rated at the top level Category 5, was as powerful as forecast and said large cyclones tend to be over estimated.
“If winds were at 300 km an hour it would have been a 100 percent wipeout,” James Cook University’s George Walker said, adding the damage suggested a Category 3 cyclone.
“Even the newer buildings would by and large stay up but suffer some damage,” he said.
Australia, a vast continent with less than three people for every square kilometer, is one of the few countries where a storm as large and terrifying as Yasi — with a diameter of up to about 500km — could simply miss major cities.
Even as Yasi began its 1,000km march into the outback yesterday, weakening as it went, tracking forecasts showed it was likely to hit only a handful of small towns in a region that is home to about 400,000 people.
The lack of any major damage or substantial casualties was also attributed to several days of preparation, early evacuations, laws that ensure newer homes and buildings are strong enough to survive a cyclone and less-than-expected sea flooding as the cyclone missed peak tides.
The cyclone came ashore around midnight along hundreds of kilometers of coast in Queensland State and then drove inland, bringing heavy rain to mining areas struggling to recover from recent devastating floods.
“Early reports have given us all a great sense of relief,” Queensland Premier Anna Bligh told reporters.
Yasi was downgraded to a Category 1 storm late yesterday as it moved toward Mount Isa, but its core continued to fuel damaging gusts and heavy rain, the Bureau of Meteorology said.
Some coal mines remained shut after the cyclone passed, but others started to resume operations and the Hay Point coal port and Mackay grains port reopened late yesterday. Coal rail lines were also set to reopen.
The eye of the cyclone crossed the coast near the tourist town of Mission Beach, where devastating Cyclone Larry struck in 2006, and damaged areas around Tully and Cardwell, where many older homes, built before tougher building codes were introduced, suffered severe damage.
Authorities said initial reports suggested only about 100 houses had suffered major damage. There were no reports of serious injuries.
The cyclone had also cut electricity to about 200,000 homes, but main links to the power grid remained intact.