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Tropical Cyclone Hits Northeast Australia

March 20, 2006

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) _ A powerful tropical cyclone ripped the roofs off buildings and uprooted trees in northeastern Australia, tearing across the region on Monday with devastating winds that kept emergency workers holed up despite pleas from terrified residents.

With winds up to 180 mph at its height, Tropical Cyclone Larry smashed into the coastal community of Innisfail, about 60 miles south of Cairns, a popular jumping-off point for the Great Barrier Reef. Hundreds of tourists bunkered down in resort hotels.

Queensland state Premier Peter Beattie declared a state of emergency, calling it the worst cyclone to hit the region in decades. More than half the buildings in Innisfail, home to about 8,500 people, were damaged, he said.

``Some have been flattened, roofs have been taken off,″ Beattie told Macquarie Radio. ``The property damage has been immense.″

The military sent helicopters to the region to assess damage and transport a medical team.

About a dozen people were treated at regional hospitals for minor cuts and abrasions, said state health spokesman Jim Guthrie.

Many Innisfail residents rode out the storm in their homes. Des Hensler sheltered alone in a church, up to his ankles in water.

``I don’t get scared much, but this is something to make any man tremble in his boots,″ he told the Seven television network. ``There’s a gray sheet of water, horizontal to the ground, and just taking everything in its path.″

At the storm’s height, police said they were unable to venture out to help fearful residents who called to say the gale-force winds had ripped the roofs off buildings and destroyed their homes.

The Bureau of Meteorology on Monday upgraded the cyclone to a Category 5 _ the strongest category possible _ shortly before it crossed the coast, but then lowered it to a Category 3 as the storm crossed land and weakened, with wind gusts up to 125 mph.

The storm passed directly over the Great Barrier Reef, but there was no immediate word on what damage it may have sustained. The reef, the largest coral system in the world, runs parallel to the coast for more than 1,400 miles.

Government and emergency officials were meeting Monday in Canberra to discuss sending troops to help clean up the cyclone-stricken area.

``If any military assets are needed, they will be made available,″ Prime Minister John Howard said.

Howard said he was confident the cyclone would not result in the chaos seen in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

The storm devastated the region’s multimillion-dollar banana and sugar farming industry, said George Pervan, deputy mayor of Johnstone Shire Council.

``The crops are all gone, bananas are all flattened, cane’s flattened. It’ll kill us for 12 or 18 months,″ Pervan said.

Up to 50,000 homes in the region were without power, and were expected to remain without electricity for several days, said Gaylene Whenmouth, a spokeswoman for Ergon Energy Cairns.

``It is still too windy to send crews out to do restoration, but we will be doing that as soon as we can, whenever it is safe to do so,″ Whenmouth said.

State Disaster Coordination Center spokesman Peter Rekers said thousands of volunteers were on standby to help with the cleanup, and warned residents to be on their guard for deadly animals stirred up by the storm.

``Keep your kids away from flooded drains, be aware of snakes and crocodiles,″ he said. ``Those guys will have had a bad night too.″

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