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Australia Cyclone Yasi upgraded to Category 5

February 1, 2011

Ian Hitchcock  /  Getty Images

Store windows throughout Townsville, located on Australia’s Queensland coast, were boarded up ahead of Cyclone Yasi.

CAIRNS, Australia — A powerful cyclone bearing down on Australia was upgraded to a maximum-strength Category 5 storm, with the likelihood of serious damage and risk to life.

“This is the most severe, most catastrophic storm that has ever hit our coast,” Anna Bligh, premier of Queensland State, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “We’ve seen a number of worst case scenarios come together.”

“This impact is likely to be more life threatening than any experienced during recent generations,” Queensland disaster officials added in an updated warning.

Yasi is expected to make landfall overnight on the Queensland coast between Cairns and Innisfail.

“We are facing a storm of catastrophic proportions in a highly populated area,” Bligh told reporters. “What it all adds up to is a very frightening time. We’re looking at 24 hours of quite terrifying winds, torrential rain, likely loss of electricity and mobile phones.”

In Cairns, the main streets were largely deserted. Shops were closed and windows taped to stop shards of flying glass.

Outside a shuttered night market, nervous backpackers tried to flag down cars and reach temporary evacuation centres at a nearby university.

“We are terrified. We have had almost no information and have never seen storms like this,” said Marlim Flagar, 20, from Sweden.

At a sprawling shopping centre on the outskirts of Cairns, hundreds of people streamed into a makeshift shelter, carrying backpacks, blankets and food.

“We’ve bought tinned food and cucumbers. That’s all we could find this morning,” said Natalie Zerbach, on holiday from Germany.

Image: Weather satellite image of tropical cyclone Yasi

Japan Meteorological Agency via Reuters

This satellite-based images shows Tropical Cyclone Yasi in the Coral Sea approaching Australia on Tuesday.

Australia has been evacuating thousands of people from its northeast coast, with officials saying Yasi could even threaten areas deep inland that were ruined by floods last month.

Forecasters expect the storm to generate winds greater than 175 mph and bring up to three feet of rain when it hits the northern coast of tropical Queensland state, making it even stronger than Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005.

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology said sea levels would rise significantly as Yasi crossed the coast.

With a strong monsoon feeding Yasi’s 400-mile wide front, the storm was also expected to maintain its intensity long after smashing into the coast and could sweep inland as far as the outback mining city of Mt. Isa, 600 miles inland.

More than 9,000 people in low-lying and coastal parts of Cairns have been ordered to evacuate their homes as the sea is expected to surge at least 6.5 feet and flood significant parts of the city.

Bligh said the military would airlift 250 patients from the waterfront Cairns Base and Cairns Private hospitals to Brisbane, the state capital. Elderly care homes were also being evacuated.

Many people were deciding on their own to leave, said Ian Stewart, the state’s disaster coordinator. “In reality, we would like people to get as far south as possible, as quickly as possible, without of course breaking the rules,” he told reporters.

‘Now is the time to act’
Mines, rail lines and coal ports were closed in Queensland state as Yasi headed towards the coast. Up to a third of Australia’s sugar crop was also under threat, officials said.

More than 400,000 people live in the cyclone’s expected path, which includes the cities of Cairns, Townsville and Mackay, which are also main tourist areas and take in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

The military was evacuating nearly 40,000 people from low-lying coastal areas, officials said.

The Queensland floods killed 35 people since November, damaged or destroyed 30,000 homes and businesses and left Brisbane, Australia’s third-largest city, under water for days.

Yasi’s forecast path is farther north, sparing Brisbane and towns worst-hit by the past floods. Still, Bligh said the storm’s path could change and residents up and down the coast needed to prepare.

“We could see very powerful flash flooding that will be dangerous and potentially deadly,” she said.

Stewart said residents should be prepared with flashlights, food and water. “Please make no mistake: this storm is a deadly event,” Stewart said. “Now is the time to act.”

‘No time for complacency’
“There’s no time for complacency,” added Mike Brunker, mayor of the Whitsunday area near the Great Barrier Reef. “People in low-lying areas are evacuating to friends and family or, if they have to, leave town.”

Island resorts in the Whitsundays and parts of the tourism hub of Cairns and Townsville were being evacuated along with other areas in the danger zone, between Cooktown in the north and near Mackay, a port, further south.

The weather was calm in Townsville late on Tuesday as scores of people milled around at its airport trying to get out.

“It’s crazy in the shops. People are nearly killing themselves to get food and water before this thing hits,” said Tracy Gibbons, standing in a line at a car rental desk.

Image: Residents fill and collect sand bags

Stewart McLean  /  AFP – Getty Images

Residents fill and collect sand bags in Townsville, Australia, on Tuesday.

Military aircraft were helping with the evacuation and extra commercial flights were scheduled. Police were empowered to forcibly move people from danger zones.

“This is not a system that’s going to cross the coast and rapidly weaken out,” said Bureau of Meteorology forecaster Gordon Banks. “We could see this system pushing well in across northern Queensland.”

Bligh said Yasi had the potential to cause powerful and deadly flash flooding in coastal areas.

But she said the storm track had shifted slightly north, meaning flood devastated and coal mining areas of central Queensland may escape the worst of cyclonic rain.

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