Two powerful cyclones pounded Australia Friday, leaving a trail of destruction with houses ripped apart, trees uprooted and electricity cut to thousands of people, but authorities expressed relief there were no fatalities.
Tropical Cyclone Marcia, a top-rating category five storm, slammed into the Queensland coast just after 2200 GMT Thursday with its landfall coming just hours after Cyclone Lam hit further north.
The category four Lam caused extensive damage to remote Aboriginal communities near Elcho Island, some 500 kilometres (310 miles) east of the Northern Territory capital Darwin, including Milingimbi, Ramingining, and Gapuwiyak.
Meanwhile, howling winds and torrential rain had residents hunkering down to wait out the terrifying conditions whipped up by Marcia which landed near Shoalwater Bay, a town of 16,000 people some 670 kilometres north of Brisbane.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said while there had been “a lot of structural damage” in the towns of Yeppoon and Rockhampton as the storm passed through, “thankfully to date there is no loss of life”.
“The good news is that the cyclone has now been classified, downgraded to a category two,” she said.
An assessment of the damage around the two towns would be carried out by helicopters on Saturday, Palaszczuk said, with two Australian military aircraft assisting, weather permitting.
Queensland’s state emergency service said that so far they had only received reports of “some minor injuries”, but that no one was known to be seriously hurt or missing.
Rockhampton mayor Margaret Strelow said there were 268 reports of structural damage and localised flooding with “many people without power”.
Palaszczuk added that fears a separate weather system inundating the state’s southeast with heavy rain could became as severe as the 2011 floods — when the east coast city of Brisbane was brought to a standstill for several days — had now eased.
Officials originally forecast Yeppoon to bear the brunt of the storm’s eye but Palaszczuk said it only “grazed” the town en route south towards the much bigger Rockhampton, home to some 80,000 people.
Despite that, there was extensive damage to property in Yeppoon with roofs torn off and some homes virtually destroyed, and more than 30,000 people left without power in the region.
“I don’t care about the house whatsoever — our family’s here so we can start again,” Simone O’Leary told reporters from an evacuation centre in the town.
“We’re all safe and that’s all that matters.”
Images posted to national broadcaster ABC’s website showed what appeared to be the remains of small homes which had crumbled into the ocean as big seas eroded the beach on Great Keppel Island, off Yeppoon.
“Three houses have gone into the ocean,” island resident Margaret Gearin told the ABC.
– Massive seas –
Roiling seas, a deluge of rain, and gusts of up to 295 kilometres per hour (182 miles per hour) were experienced along the central Queensland coast with a storm surge predicted to raise sea levels three metres (10 feet) higher than normal.
The storm was weakening as it headed south but still packing a powerful punch with the impact being felt over a wide area, officials said late Friday.
The first cyclone, Lam, has also since been downgraded to a tropical low, with very heavy rain expected to cause flooding.
“Initial indications are that there has been substantial damage, initial reports are the airstrip is still intact but covered with debris,” regional police commander Bruce Porter said of the Elcho Island community, which was without power and water.
“There are downed power lines. There are a number of trees down and many roads are impassable and we do have a number of buildings and houses that have been severely damaged.”
Residents as far away as Brisbane sandbagged their homes and cleared properties of objects that could be whipped away by the wind, while Australia’s Channel Nine network showed images of a shark washed ashore by the waves.
Dozens of schools were closed and businesses shuttered as a series of domestic flights were cancelled.
Queensland has been smashed by several major storms and cyclones over the past few years with Cyclone Oswald, also a category five, flooding parts of the state in 2013, racking up insurance claims of some Aus$977 million (US$765 million).