Cyclone Yasi: Queensland battens down as onslaught begins
The destructive force of the category five Tropical Cyclone Yasi has started to hit the north Queensland coast, knocking out electricity to thousands of residents and bringing gale-force winds.
By the early afternoon, the skies had darkened and heavy rain was lashing the city of Cairns, where thousands of people had packed into shopping centres, sports centres and school halls to ride out the storm.
The city's seven evacuation centres filled up quickly, with demand so high that authorities were trying to find an eighth centre for evacuees. In the meantime, several people were turned away and told to seek shelter at home.
Cyclone Yasi has been described by authorities as a "monster, killer storm" that will bring catastrophic damage to the northeastern Australian state over the next 24 hours.
After intensifying overnight, the storm is travelling at 30kph and measures 580km wide. The same strength as Hurricane Katrina, the storm is expected to be the biggest and most deadly cyclone to hit Australia in history.
Cyclone Yasi is forecast to make landfall at midnight local time (2pm GMT) near the town of Innisfail, one hour's drive south of Cairns, bringing a storm surge of up to 20ft above the high tide level.
Innisfail is still recovering from devastation wrought by Cyclone Larry in 2006, which destroyed thousands of homes and caused $1.5bn worth of damage.
Bob Katter, the federal MP for Innisfail, said that the town's residents were extremely nervous.
"To have to be hit again is really, really terrible. I'm ... looking forward to the rest of the day with nothing less than dread," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
As the cyclone neared the coast, Anna Bligh, the state's premier, said it was too late to evacuate and urged residents from Cairns in the north to Mackay on the Whitsunday Coast to bunker down with food, medical supplies and mattresses in the smallest room in their houses and sit out the storm, which could last 20 hours.
The police have warned that winds – predicted to be up to 290kph – would be strong enough to lift roofs from houses. They said that telecommunication services were likely to be knocked out and that the emergency services would not be available until the cyclone had passed.
Julia Gillard, the prime minister, warned the state to brace for widespread destruction.
In a sombre message, she said the region was about to experience "many, many dreadful frightening hours".
"(Yasi) is a powerful natural force but the courage of the people of far north Queensland is an even stronger force again," she said.
More than 400,000 people live in the cyclone's expected path on the northeast coast of Queensland. The entire stretch is popular with tourists and includes Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Yesterday, all of the islands on the reef were evacuated as thousands of holidaymakers fled the area.
Satellite images showed Yasi as a massive storm system covering an area bigger than Italy or New Zealand.
Mines, rail lines and coal ports have all shut down, with officials warning the storm could drive inland for hundreds of miles, hitting rural, agricultural and mining areas.
In the evacuation centres in Cairns, anxiety was high.
At a shopping centre which serves as a shelter in Cairns, Selwyn Hughes stood with his family in the uncovered car park 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," he said, squatting on a pink suitcase with his five children, aged two to 13.
The family's only possessions were a small box of food, including a tin of powdered milk, and clothes and a pram for two-year-old daughter Minoota.
Another 80 people were gathered in the car park.