Tropical cyclone hits Australia

A powerful cyclone ripped roofs of houses and uprooted trees near the tropical city of Cairns in Australia's far northeast on Monday, with winds of up to 290 kph (180 mph) devastating local communities and crops.

The sugar-growing town of Innisfail bore the brunt of Cyclone Larry, which left a trail of destruction along 300 km (190 mile) of coastline, stretching south from Cairns to Townsville.

"It just came across the bay and the place literally shook. It was like the sound of a steam train coming across the bay -- it was terrifying," Cherelle Skelly told Reuters from her beach home at Mission Point, near Innisfail.

Prime Minister John Howard put Australia's military on alert to help with rescue operations or to move emergency supplies and medical help to the worst-hit areas.

Wayne Coutts, from Queensland's emergency disaster service, said damage reports were so far limited to flooding, uprooted trees and damage to houses.

"We've even seen a few homes that you might as well say have been totally demolished -- it looked like they'd exploded," Coutts told reporters in Queensland.

Police Sergeant Dwayne Amos in Innisfail, a town of about 8,500 people, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio that more than half the houses in the town had sustained some damage. He said injuries were all minor.

The Bureau of Meteorology said Cyclone Larry was similar in size to Cyclone Tracy, which killed 71 people and destroyed about 70 percent of the northern city of Darwin in 1974.

Cairns is the main tourist centre of north Queensland state, and is a base for visitors to the nearby Great Barrier Reef and inland tropical rainforests.

Up to 250,000 people live in the area, which is also the centre of Australia's banana industry and accounts for 25 percent of Australia's sugar cane production.

"We are the tropical fruit bowl of Australia. I would say every tree has been flattened," local mayor Neil Clarke told ABC television. "It looks like an atomic bomb has hit the place."

Australia is the third-largest exporter of raw sugar in the world and in some areas the cane crop has been destroyed, reports Reuters.


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