Rains, flood threat hamper Aussie cyclone relief
CAIRNS, Australia – Drenching rain and the threat of flash flooding hampered recovery efforts Friday following one of Australia's most damaging cyclones, as authorities confirmed the first death from the storm.
Cyclone Yasi was downgraded Friday morning to less than hurricane strength after traveling almost 500 miles (800 kilometers) inland since crashing ashore a day earlier along a long stretch of Queensland state's coast.
The storm destroyed dozens of homes and ripped roofs and walls from dozens more. It cut power supplies in two regional cities and laid waste to hundreds of millions of dollars worth of banana and sugar cane crops.
Police on Friday announced the first death from the cyclone — a 23-year-old man who asphyxiated due to fumes from a diesel-powered generator he was using in a closed room as he sheltered from the storm. Two other men are missing in Cardwell.
Residents and officials were amazed that the death toll was not higher. The storm whipped the coast with up to 170 mph (280 kph) winds and sent waves crashing ashore two blocks into seaside communities.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard said 4,000 troops were being made available to help with the cleanup operation, and more than 600 police and emergency services workers were fanning out to hard-hit towns with chain saws and heavy machinery to clear downed trees and other debris.
Power was gradually being restored in some areas, and airports in regional centers were reopening. But the work was being hampered by torrential rain in other parts of the disaster zone, a coastal region more than 190 miles (300 kilometers) long that is popular with tourists and forms the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef.
The Bureau of Meteorology issued flood warnings along the length of the stricken coast, which is in the middle of the annual monsoon season. Further warnings were in place for inland regions in the path of the storm's remnants.
Officials urged people in towns still cut off to be patient, and vowed they would work hard to reach all outlying areas.
The cyclone has added misery to a state that has been battered for weeks by the nation's worst flooding in decades, which killed 35 people, swamped dozens of towns and caused an estimated $5.6 billion dollars damage.
In Cardwell, power and water supplies remained cut and shops and restaurants were shuttered. The main road into town was torn into chunks in places and piles of sand washed ashore by tidal surges blocked it elsewhere. Yachts and leisure cruisers were piled atop each other at the marina, and some washed up on the boardwalk.
Diane Robson said she and her husband Michael weathered the storm in their top floor apartment. On Friday, she stood on her balcony looking at her yacht lying in their next door neighbor's yard, where it was flung by the storm.
"I don't ever want to get back on the boat again." she said "I'm too scared."
The couple had about a week's worth of food and bottled water, and said they would stick around to clean up until their supplies ran out.
Lisa Smith, whose house in Cardwell had part of its roof torn off, said she was still numb from the disaster, and was beginning to wonder when officials would come to their aid. The couple lived through Cyclone Larry that hit in 2006, and she said it took a long time for help to arrive.
"A lot of us feel like we're on our own again," she said. "I just hope we don't get forgotten."
Gillard said that while the most frightening period of the storm was finished, continuing bad weather meant the situation was still dangerous.
"This is a big cyclone, it's a big area, it's a lot of damage, and the damage is still being created because of the floodwaters," Gillard told reporters in Townsville. "It's not the right time for people to let their guard down."