Tropical Cyclone Yasi made landfall near Mission Beach along the northern coastline of Queensland in Australia at around 14:00 UTC on February 2 (0:00 on February 3 local time) with sustained winds of around 240 kmph (150 mph), according to reports. The wind speeds are equivalent to a category 4 cyclone on the Saffir Simpson Scale and a category 5 cyclone on the Australian Tropical Cyclone Intensity Scale, making Yasi one of the strongest cyclones to hit Queensland since records began. Yasi came ashore around 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Innisfail, pounding communities in the area with destructive winds and heavy rain. The landfall point was also to the south of Cairns (population of around 165,000) and to the north of Townsville (180,000), sparing both cities the worst of the severe weather but subjecting them to tropical storm-force winds, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC). The JTWC added that Yasi was a large storm at landfall, with hurricane-force winds extending around 145 kilometers (90 miles) from its center and tropical storm-force winds extending 400 kilometers (250 miles).
Despite strict building standards in Queensland, officials said widespread damage has been reported in the towns of Mission Beach, Innisfail, Tully and Cardwell after were they were battered by hurricane-force winds and a large storm surge. Fortunately, the cities of Cairns and Townsville were not affected by hurricane-force winds and initial reports suggest significant damage in both cities is minimal. Although the full extent of the damage is not yet known, it seems communities located between Cairns and Townsville bore the brunt of Yasi’s powerful winds and heavy rain. Reports say hundreds of properties have been destroyed and around 200,000 households lost power. No fatalities or serious injuries have been reported, however.
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Before Yasi made landfall, Prime Minister Julia Gillard warned it looked set to be the worst cyclone in Australian history and Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology warned the impact of the cyclone was likely to be more life-threatening than any experienced during recent generations. Consequently, more than 10,000 local residents sought refuge in the major evacuation centers. However, once the storm had passed, it became clear that it had not caused the widespread devastation that officials had feared, particularly in the more populated regions. Although coastal areas in Cairns and Townsville were pounded by strong winds and high waves, damage is reportedly largely restricted to fallen trees and minor damage to buildings. Families who evacuated their homes in both cities have consequently been told they can return to their properties while the airport in Cairns has been reopened. Flash flooding remains a threat, however, after the cyclone dumped heavy rainfall in the region.
Significant wind damage has been reported in the smaller communities between Cairns and Townsville, particularly to older buildings. Reports said several coastal homes have been destroyed, with roofs ripped off dozens of buildings. Mission Beach, Innisfail, Tully and Cardwell were particularly badly affected. Early damage assessments indicate that hundreds of homes in these towns have been damaged. Emergency services in Mission Beach and Tully said the severe weather had caused widespread damage in both towns, with up to 90 percent of buildings along Tully’s main street extensively damaged. Early damage assessments suggest more than 200 more buildings have been damaged in Cardwell (60 with major structural damage, 100 with medium level of damage and 50 with minor damage), while dozens of luxury yachts were piled on top of each other in the town’s marina after a storm surge hit the coastline. In Innisfail, meanwhile, officials said the severe weather had downed trees and power lines, causing widespread power failures, but added that the damage was surprisingly light.
Industrial and agricultural interests have also been affected by Yasi. Although most of Queensland’s coal mines are located to the south of Yasi’s path, operations in the area belonging to Rio Tinto, Xstrata, BHP Billiton and Peabody Energy have been closed. Activity at several coal export ports and rail lines has also been disrupted. Elsewhere, operations at a 300,000-ton-a-year copper refinery in Townsville and a 30,000 tons-a-year nickel refinery at Yabulu have been shut.
Farming was also badly affected by the cyclone, particularly the sugar industry. Sugar group Canegrowers estimates that around 15 percent of Australia’s sugar cane crop was destroyed by Yasi, with initial loss estimates at around AUD500 million. Reports also indicate that banana growers have suffered significant losses, with up to 90 percent of Australia’s banana plantations estimated to have been affected. In addition to sugar and bananas, northern Queensland is also an important producer of watermelons, mangoes, lychees, macadamia nuts, strawberries and various vegetables, the National Farmers Federation said. Reports said Queensland’s large livestock industry is also prepared for heavy loses from Yasi.
According to reports, Yasi’s size and strength could surpass that of Cyclone Tracy, which hit the northern Australian city of Darwin in 1974, killing 71 people and flattening more than 90 percent of its houses. Reports added that Yasi is far bigger and stronger than Cyclone Larry which caused insured losses of AUD540 million after taking a similar track to Yasi and making landfall just south of Innisfail in 2006. Insured losses from Yasi are expected to exceed those from Larry because Yasi carried higher maximum winds and the extent of hurricane-force winds is significantly higher, according to EQECAT. EQECAT added it expects the economic damage from Yasi to be between AUD/USD1 billion to AUD/USD 5 billion.
Sources: Australian Bureau of Meteorology, Joint Typhoon Warning Center, WSI, Associated Press, Reuters News, Agence France Presse, Australian Associated Press, The Age, Xinhua News Agency, EQECAT
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