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Powerful Storm 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 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 Brian Bowase said it was ``unequivocally″ the strongest to 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.

Bowase said he still did not have an accurate reading on the sustained wind speed of the cyclone, a term used for a hurricane in Australia.

Telephone service was knocked out in Whim Creek, 750 miles north of the Western Australia state capital, Perth. The storm was heading south southeast at 8 mph.

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.

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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