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Strong cyclone bears down on north Australia coast

Strong cyclone bears down on north Australia coast
Wednesday, February 2, 2011 - 4:38am

CAIRNS, Australia -- Thousands of Australians were urged Wednesday to gather their loved ones and flee a monster cyclone that strengthened overnight and threatens hours of terrifying winds and torrential rain for the northeast.

Gusts up to 174 mph (280 kph) are expected when Cyclone Yasi strikes late Wednesday night. The storm front is more than 310 miles (500 kilometers) wide and Yasi is so strong, it could reach far inland before it significantly loses power.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh urged people living in low-lying areas to get out quickly as roads and airports were within hours of closing.

"Do not bother to pack bags. Just grab each other and get to a place of safety. Remember that people are irreplaceable," she said.

Cyclone Yasi was forecast to hit land at about 10 p.m. Wednesday (7 a.m. EST, 1200 GMT), the Bureau of Meteorology said. The timing, just after high tide, meant high storm surges of at least 6.5 feet (two meters) were likely to flood significant areas along the coast.

"Yasi ... poses an extremely serious threat to life and property," the bureau warned, adding that the storm is likely to be, "more life-threatening than any experienced in recent generations."

Bligh said residents in coastal areas should have left already as their region would undoubtedly flood. Those living further inland were told to "bunker down" in their homes and get ready for gale-force winds expected to hit within hours.

"We are facing a storm of catastrophic proportions in a highly populated area," Bligh said. "What it all adds up to is a very frightening time. We're looking at 24 hours of quite terrifying winds, torrential rain, likely loss of electricity and mobile phones. People really need to be preparing mentally if nothing else."

The storm is expected to make landfall between Cairns - a city of some 164,000 people and a gateway for visitors to the Great Barrier Reef - and Innisfail, a rural community about 60 miles (100 kilometers) south, which was devastated by Cyclone Larry in 2006. Larry destroyed thousands of homes and banana and sugar cane plantations. No one was killed.

The Cairns airport was scheduled to close Wednesday after extra morning flights left. Tourists fled beach resorts ranging from backpacker hostels to exclusive clubs, and military flights ferried the ill and elderly from hospitals to safety farther south.

"We're in the process of packing up boxes ... the dogs and the pet snake and getting out of here," Cairns resident Melissa Lovejoy told the ABC. She said the family decided to leave their home near the coast for a friend's place that was sturdier and further inland.

Forecasters said up to three feet (one meter) of rain could fall on some coastal communities. Many parts of Queensland state are already saturated from months of flooding, though the worst floods hit areas hundreds of miles (kilometers) farther south of the towns in the immediate path of Yasi. Still, Bligh said residents up and down the coast needed to prepare.

"It's such a big storm - it's a monster, killer storm - that it's not just about where this crosses the coast that is at risk," Bligh said.

Queensland has been in the grip of one of Australia's worst natural disasters for more than a month. Tropical deluges that began in November flooded an area greater than France and Germany combined, damaging or destroying some 30,000 homes and businesses and killing 35 people.

Large parts of Brisbane, Australia's third-largest city, were inundated for days. The government says the total cost to Australia is at least $5.6 billion.

Brisbane is about 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) south of Cairns on Australia's east coast.

Australia's huge, sparsely populated tropical north is battered by about six cyclones - called typhoons throughout much of Asia and hurricanes in the Western hemisphere - each year. Building codes that have been strengthened since Cyclone Tracy devastated the city of Darwin in 1974 have left the region generally well-prepared.

Online: Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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