Queensland counts Yasi's huge cost

By Greg Ansley

Yasi's 290km/h winds hurled pleasure craft together in a stack at Port Hinchinbrook in Cardwell, south of Cairns. Photo / AFP
Yasi's 290km/h winds hurled pleasure craft together in a stack at Port Hinchinbrook in Cardwell, south of Cairns. Photo / AFP

Under leaden skies and sheets of torrential rain that obscured its ranges, north Queensland was last night counting both costs and blessings as Cyclone Yasi raged far into the west, losing potency as it went.

The massive category-five cyclone - raging on to the coast between Cairns and Townsville early yesterday and cutting a 1000km-wide swathe - was the largest storm in the state's modern history.

But while it caused huge damage, it missed the region's biggest population centres and, as far as authorities could judge last night, left no one dead or seriously injured. However, last night, two men were missing in Innisfail.

In Cairns, three babies were born at Yasi's peak - one a girl in an evacuation centre, helped by a midwife also sheltering there.

There may yet be some tragic shocks: numerous small towns and isolated farmhouses have still to be searched, and as darkness fell, emergency service teams were still using chainsaws to chew their way through roads blocked by trees strewn about, many said, "like matchsticks".

North of Bowen, where trees and shrubs lashed by the southern tip of Yasi's tail littered streets, parks and gardens, the Bruce Highway to Townsville last night remained cut, with cars needing to ford flooded sections before being turned back.

In this southern fringe the storm was fierce, but held nothing of the fury that devastated the towns of Tully, Mission Beach, Cardwell, Silkwood and Innisfail, ground zero for the landfall of Yasi's 290km/h winds.

There, the cyclone ravaged as many as one house in three - perhaps more - in a night of terror that left the communities looking like what one shaken resident described as a war zone.

In Cardwell, the cyclone wrecked the marina and tossed boats up to two blocks inland. "This place is wiped out," said Returned Services League president Ray Andrews, who told News Ltd the cyclone felt "like a freight train coming for you".

An aerial survey by emergency services indicated that at least 170 homes had been destroyed in Mission Beach, Cardwell, Tully and Port Hinchinbrook. Yasi also stripped the region of vital services, cutting power to 180,000 homes, knocking out 15,000 landlines and 60 mobile towers and blocking dozens of roads.

Damage to vital facilities has left Townsville and Magnetic Island without water. Banana and cane crops have been devastated, adding to a damage bill that will soar beyond the billions lost to earlier flooding, forcing Prime Minister Julia Gillard to slash more spending from her May budget.

But Yasi's sword was two-edged.

"I certainly think that many in north Queensland will be breathing a sigh of relief," Premier Anna Bligh said. "I am equally aware that communities will be facing scenes of considerable devastation.

"Many people will be feeling a great sense of despair. Can I say to you, 'You are not alone'."

As Queenslanders emerged to survey what was left of their homes, terrifying stories of survival emerged.

Some people, turned away from evacuation centres, hid in bathtubs covered by mattresses; others climbed under the houses; one family huddled in a car parked in the garage beneath their home.

In Tully, Shirelle Skelly and her husband fought an exhausting, personal battle against the tempest, shoulders against the door of their house to prevent the storm shrieking inside.

As they pushed back, Yasi drove harder, forcing them backwards time and again before finally moving on, leaving the Skellys spent, but their house mostly intact.

"We were not going to let this monster take it away from us," Ms Skelly told ABC radio.

In Tully, Red Cross co-ordinator Noelene Byrne took 10 locals to the Senior Citizens' Hall for safety, but had second thoughts and moved to the Red Cross centre.

In the morning, she found the hall mangled. "If we had stayed there, lives would have been lost."

At Mission Beach, where Yasi first left the sea, one resident told the ABC that the house felt like it was breathing, like bellows: "I could feel the pressure."

Mission Beach local Ron Darlington said the town looked like it had been hit by a nuclear bomb after a night that had left children "freaking out" and "even for the hard core, pretty savage".

"I just wonder where everyone is going to sleep tonight."

The surrounding rainforest has been stripped. Locals said there was no canopy, and entire trees had been stripped bare of leaves.

This could spell disaster for the region's endangered cassowaries, the brilliantly plumaged giant flightless bird that barely survived Cyclone Larry four years ago.

The full extent of the damage will take days to assess and months to repair.

The army flew three Chinook helicopters, three NH90s and eight Blackhawks from Townsville to Mackay as Yasi bore down on the city, and it was not until late yesterday that skies became safe enough for limited operations to begin.

Winds were still strong in coastal regions, and were expected to continue to be damaging, if not catastrophic, as the cyclone moved towards Mt Isa, 900km from the coast.

- NZ Herald

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