- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 2, 2011

CAIRNS, Australia (AP) — A massive cyclone struck northeastern Australia early Thursday, tearing off roofs, toppling trees and cutting power to thousands, the most powerful storm to hit the area in nearly a century.

The eye of Cyclone Yasi roared ashore at the small resort town of Mission Beach in Queensland state, battering the coast known to tourists as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef with heavy rain and howling winds gusting to 186 mph.

Yasi compounded the suffering for Queensland, waterlogged by months of flooding that killed 35 people and inundated hundreds of communities. It struck an area north of the flood zone, but the Bureau of Meteorology said it would bring drenching rains that could cause floods in new parts of the state.

Witnesses reported roofs being ripped off, buildings shaking and trees flattened under the power of the winds. Officials said the storm surge would flood some places to roof level.

“This is a cyclone of savagery and intensity,” Prime Minister Julia Gillard said in a nationally televised press conference as the storm moved toward the coast. “People are facing some really dreadful hours in front of them.”

This image provided by NASA shows Tropical Cyclone Yasi as it approaches Queensland, Australia, Wednesday Feb. 2, 2011. (AP Photo/NASA - Jeff Schmaltz)
This image provided by NASA shows Tropical Cyclone Yasi as it approaches ... more >

More than 10,000 people fled to 20 evacuation centers in a danger zone stretching 190 miles, amid strong warnings in the past two days. Many others moved in with family or friends in safer locations. Still, authorities were preparing for devastation, and likely deaths.

The storm’s front was about 300 miles across, with the worst of the winds expected to lash the coast for up to four hours, although blustery conditions and heavy rain could last for a day.

“It’s such a big storm — it’s a monster, killer storm,” Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said, adding that the only previous cyclone measured in the state at such strength was in 1918. “This impact is likely to be more life threatening than any experienced during recent generations.”

The damage would not be known until first light, officials said.

In the city of Cairns, about 75 miles north of Mission Beach, guests at a waterfront hotel took cover in the central ballroom as lights flickered. Staff members handed out flashlights and pinned curtains shut over windows in danger of shattering.

Tourist Barbara Maskei, 49, of Germany, lay on the ballroom floor under a sheet reading a book, as her 20-year-old daughter, Annette, and husband, Peter, dozed beside her. For her, there would be no sleep. “I like to keep my eyes open,” she said as the wind roared outside.

The staff distracted people from the storm by playing the movie “Music and Lyrics” on a giant screen. Some tried to sleep through the noise of the movie, wailing children and loud conversations.

In Innisfail, a town about 55 miles south of Cairns that sat nearly in the direct path of the storm, Mayor Bill Shannon said he saw the roof torn off a building near the local government building where about 500 people are sheltering.

“We’re just hoping and praying we can all get through the night,” Mr. Shannon said.

In nearby Tully, resident Ross Sorbello described feeling his house shake from the wind.

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