INNISFAIL, Australia – A terrifying top-strength cyclone slammed into Australia’s populous northeast coast Thursday, with officials warning it could be one of the most lethal storms in the nation’s history.
Howling winds whipped up by Severe Tropical Cyclone Yasi with speeds of up to 290 kilometres (181 miles) per hour ripped off roofs, felled trees and cut power supplies as the storm crossed the Queensland coast.
Yasi, the worst storm to hit the area in a century, made landfall around midnight (1400 GMT), the Bureau of Meteorology said, after the cyclone was upgraded early in the day to a category five storm from category four.
“The large destructive core of Cyclone Yasi is starting to cross the coast between Innisfail and Cardwell, with a dangerous storm tide and battering waves to the south of the cyclone centre,” the bureau said in a statement.
The storm made landfall near Mission Beach, which lies in the heart of a tourism and agriculture-rich area 180 kilometers south of Cairns, gateway to the Great Barrier Reef.
It was expected to rage at full force for up to four hours.
The stricken area’s million residents were warned of an “extremely dangerous sea level rise” and “very destructive” winds accompanying Yasi’s arrival, posing a severe threat to life.
State disaster coordinator Ian Stewart said deaths in Yasi’s terrible path were “very likely”.
“Unfortunately we are going to see significant destruction of buildings … and it is very likely that we will see deaths occur. We have not hidden from that fact,” he told Sky News.
Forecasters had earlier said that Yasi, the first category five storm to hit the area since 1918, was likely to be “more life-threatening than any (storm) experienced during recent generations.”
State Premier Anna Bligh echoed the grim note of caution, urging residents to steel themselves for what dawn and the passing of the storm might reveal.
“Without doubt we are set to encounter scenes of devastation and heartbreak on an unprecedented scale,” she said.
“It will take all of us and all of our strength to overcome this. The next 24 hours I think are going to be very, very tough ones for everybody.”
More than 10,000 seaside residents and tourists were sheltering in 20 evacuation centres across the region — some so packed that people were turned away — while tens of thousands more were staying with family and friends.
Locals further from the water 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.
Some 4,000 soldiers were on standby to help residents when the storm passed, but until then, locals were on their own as it was too dangerous to deploy emergency personnel, officials said.
Yasi was shaping up as the worst cyclone in Australian history, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said, adding the nation was with Queenslanders as they faced “many, many dreadful, frightening hours” of destruction.
“This is probably the worst cyclone that our nation has ever seen,” Gillard said.
Yasi was set to generate up to 700 millimetres (27.5 inches) of rain and huge and treacherous storm surges of between 2.3 and seven metres (eight to 23 feet) that are threatening to flood towns and tourist resorts.
The storm is so enormous that it would almost cover the United States or large parts of Europe, models published by News Ltd newspapers showed.
Usually bustling with holidaymakers and diving enthusiasts, the streets of tourist hub Cairns were eerily deserted as the wind uprooted trees and blew palm trees flat.
Bligh said grave fears were held for major power transmission lines in the region, never before tested at category five winds, warning that their failure would be a “catastrophic” issue for the entire state.
“We are planning for an aftermath that may see a catastrophic failure of essential services,” she said.
The storm’s size and power dwarfs Cyclone Tracy, which hit the northern Australian city of Darwin in 1974, killing 71 people and flattening more than 90 percent of its houses.
It is also twice the size and far stronger than the category four Cyclone Larry that caused Aus$1.5 billion ($1.5 billion) of damage after hitting agricultural areas around Innisfail, just south of Cairns, in 2006.