Thousands flee as super cyclone Debbie crosses Australian coast, with winds topping 260km/h

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 March, 2017, 10:28am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 March, 2017, 10:04pm

The worst cyclone in six years was smashing into the coast of Queensland on Tuesday, forcing thousands of Australians to evacuate or seek emergency shelter and prompting some of the world’s biggest miners to halt coal operations.

Wind gusts had reached a staggering 263km/h at Hamilton Island on the Great Barrier Reef, as the eye of Cyclone Debbie passed through the Whitsunday Islands group.

Debbie was pummelling popular tourist destinations and made landfall on the mainland nearly the resort town of Airlie Beach around 1pm. As many as 25,000 residents evacuated low-lying areas due to an expected storm surge.

One man was injured after a wall collapsed in Proserpine, a town south of Airlie Beach, Queensland Police Commissioner Ian Stewart said. The man was taken to a hospital, and his condition was not immediately known.

Officials warned that the slow-moving storm was likely to hover over the region for several hours before weakening as it moved inland. Stewart said the cyclone’s glacial pace had created a “battering ram effect,” with some areas enduring the howling winds and drenching rains for a punishingly long time.

“I suspect before the day is out, we will see a lot of structural damage in the cyclone’s path,” Stewart said.

Communities along more than 300km of coastline were expected to be affected, he said.

John Collins, a member of the Whitsundays government council, was sheltering from the storm with his wife and four daughters inside their house in Proserpine. He could see that four of his neighbours’ sheds had been destroyed and every house within eyesight — including his own — had lost their fences. At least four trees had been smashed to pieces.

“It sounds like you got a jumbo jet sitting on the roof of your house,” Collins said by telephone of the wind roaring outside. “It really is so loud. It’s incredible.”

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk told Sky News on Tuesday: “The ferocity and intensity of these winds is going to be gradually increasing. It is going to be a long, tough day.”

Debbie crossed the mainland coast as a category four cyclone, carrying the risk of significant structural damage and dangerous airborne debris, according to the weather bureau. It is the first in two years to reach the coast of the northeastern state and could be worse than Cyclone Yasi in some areas. Yasi was category five - the most severe - and badly damaged sugar and banana-producing regions and affected tourist sites on the Great Barrier Reef.

Rainfall of up to 50 centimetres in some areas is expected to cause major flooding, the bureau said. More than 25,000 properties had power outages in the Whitsundays and Mackay area, according to supplier Ergon Energy.

“We’re getting some reports already of roofs starting to lift, including at some of our own facilities in the Whitsundays,” Queensland Police Deputy Commissioner Steve Gollschewski told ABC television.

Authorities stockpiled food and fuel, and the army was on standby to deal with the aftermath.

BHP Billiton Ltd, the world’s biggest miner, said it was suspending operations at the South Walker Creek metallurgical coal mine. Glencore Plc is preparing to temporarily halt output from the Collinsville and Newlands mines. Evolution Mining Ltd, Australia’s second-largest gold producer, evacuated its Mt Carlton mine, according to a filing Monday.

The cyclone’s footprint covers the Burdekin, Proserpine and Mackay sugar-cane growing regions, which account for about half of Queensland’s crop, the industry group Canegrowers said in a statement. It’s too early to say whether the winds would affect the current forecast for a crop of 37 million tonnes of sugar cane in the harvest that starts in eight to nine weeks, Paul Schembri, the group’s chairman, said in an interview.

“It’s bound to generate some crop losses but at this point in time we can’t speculate what the extent of those losses will be,” Schembri said. “Damage now is just going to be another body blow to farmers at this time of the year.”

The Port of Townsville, which handles approximately A$30 million (US$23 million) in trade per day, evacuated vessels and personnel Monday.

Not everyone was heeding the evacuation warnings.

Jan Clifford, who plans to ride out the storm at her home in Airlie Beach, said the power was out, her fence had blown away and huge trees had been uprooted.

“Our houses are built to take this stuff, it’s just what you do,” she said by telephone. “It’s where you live and it is what it is.”

Additional reporting by The Guardian, Associated Press and Reuters