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Powerful Cyclone Hits Australia

December 15, 1999

PERTH, Australia (AP) _ Packing wind gusts of up to 185 mph, the most powerful cyclone ever recorded in Australia lashed the northwestern coast Wednesday, damaging homes, forcing evacuations and ripping up trees. There were no immediate reports of injury.

Cyclone John, which at its peak had sustained winds of 130 mph, moved over land near the tiny community of Whim Creek early Wednesday morning, bringing driving rains and powerful gusts that caused power outages and drove hundreds of people from their homes.

Bureau of Meteorology forecaster Bryan Boase said it was ``unequivocally″ the strongest cyclone to hit Australia since the government began keeping records.

``We’re looking at winds of almost 300 kilometers (185 miles) an hour and quite frankly, that’s bloody unbelievable,″ he said, referring to the gusts. The bureau declared the cyclone a category-five, the most powerful. Cyclone is the term used for hurricanes in the Indian Ocean.

The storm lost power as it crossed the coast, and later in the day it was downgraded to a category-four _ still with sustained winds of 106 mph. By midday, the storm was heading south-southeast at 8 mph and gradually losing power.

Telephone service was knocked out in Whim Creek, a community believed to have about 12 residents, 750 miles north of the Western Australia state capital, Perth. Reports said residents were huddling for shelter in a freight container anchored to the ground with chains and concrete blocks.

Storm surges of up to 20 feet were expected to cause heavy flooding in sparsely populated low-lying coastal regions, the State Emergency Services warned. Experts said the area was likely to have escaped major damage because the storm did not pass over any large communities.

Two evacuation centers were set up in the town of Karratha. Jim McDougall, assistant manager at the Mercure Inn in Karratha, said palm fronds had begun to blow off trees and the rain was coming in horizontally.

``No one has been through one this big. I just hope the roof stays on,″ he said. `There’s not much you can do, just wait it out.″

Kevin Richards, a top Karratha city official, compared the strong winds battering the town to the sound of ``a never-ending freight train.″

Roofs had been damaged, trees uprooted and power lines were down, Richards said.

But weather bureau spokesman Len Broadbridge said Karratha had actually escaped the brunt of the storm.

``They have had a very lucky escape,″ he said. ``I guess they could think Christmas has come early for them.″

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