- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2006

CAIRNS, Australia — Metal roofs littered streets, wooden houses lay in splinters and banana plantations were stripped bare after the most powerful cyclone to hit Australia in three decades lashed the country’s eastern coast yesterday.

Amazingly, the storm caused no reported fatalities, and only 30 persons reported minor injuries. But the damage from Cyclone Larry, a Category 5 storm with winds up to 180 mph, was expected to run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Hardest hit was Innisfail, a farming city of 8,500 people 60 miles south of the tourist city of Cairns in northeastern Queensland state.

“It looks like an atomic bomb hit the place,” Innisfail Mayor Neil Clarke told Australian television. “It is severe damage. This is more than a local disaster; this is a national disaster.”

The town urgently needs accommodations for people whose homes were damaged, and a power supply to feed hospitals and other services, he said.

There was no official count of the homeless yesterday, but given the number of homes severely damaged, the figure could run into the thousands, Mr. Clarke said.

The casualty toll was so low because people left town or went to shelters after authorities posted warnings. Residents and officials were mindful of the damage that Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans and Mississippi in August, said Ben Creagh, a spokesman for Queensland state Department of Emergency Services.

“Everyone here studied Katrina and took a lot of messages away, a lot of lessons at the expense of the poor old Yanks,” Mr. Creagh said.

Within hours of the storm’s landfall, officials declared a state of emergency and announced cash payouts for victims — $720 for each adult and $290 for each child who lost his or her home.

Prime Minister John Howard dispatched 120 troops to help deliver aid, while cleanup and urban search-and-rescue crews were heading to the town.

Among supplies flowing into the town were nearly 10,500 gallons of water and 6,000 in-flight meals provided by national airline Qantas Airways, and gasoline.

Queensland Premier Peter Beattie said 55 percent of the homes in Innisfail had been damaged, though rescue teams had yet to gain full access to the swamped region. All roads into the town remained blocked late yesterday.

Farmers were expected to be among the hardest hit. The region is a major growing area for bananas and sugar cane, and vast tracts of the crops were flattened. One lawmaker estimated lost revenue could reach $110 million.

The storm also barreled over a portion of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, damaging a narrow band of coral, said David Wachenfeld, director of science at the government body that cares for the reef.

The reef is more than 1,240 miles long, and the affected area is only about 30 miles across and far from the places where nearly 2 million tourists a year gaze in awe at the coral’s vibrant colors and marine life, he said.

It would take 10 to 20 years for new coral to grow and replace the damaged area, he said.

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