Cyclone batters Australia’s Great Barrier Reef coast

Cyclone batters Australia’s Great Barrier Reef coast

SYDNEY - A tropical cyclone battered Australia's Barrier Reef coast Saturday, knocking out power and phone lines for thousands of people as officials warned the storm "continues to be a threat" despite weakening in force.

Tens of thousands of people hunkered down overnight as strong gales and heavy rains lashed the far north but no deaths or major destruction was reported as cyclone Ita was downgraded to a category one storm.

Ita crossed the coast near Cape Flattery late Friday as a category four storm packing winds up to 230 kilometres per hour (140 miles per hour), tearing off roofs and uprooting trees.

Queensland state Premier Campbell Newman said several thousand people across the far north had lost electricity and warned that cylone Ita "continues to be a threat" as it tracked south across the state.

"I am greatly relieved at this time that we have no reports of either death or injury," he told a press conference, while urging people to stay indoors or in shelters "until this is properly over".

A state cabinet meeting was underway to organise the clean up operation and assess how quickly electricity and communication lines could be restored, the premier said.

Cyclone warnings remained in force for coastal areas from Cape Flattery to Cardwell, including Cooktown and the major Barrier Reef resorts of Port Douglas and Cairns, 1,700 kilometres (1,060 miles) north of Brisbane.

Roofs were ripped off two homes and a pub in the coastal resort of Cooktown where several trees were uprooted during the night, officials said.

Large parts of the 1,000 strong Aboriginal community of Hope Vale and Cooktown, population 2,400, had lost power.

The storm was downgraded from the strongest category five before it made landfall Friday night.

At 11:00 am (0100 GMT Saturday) the Bureau of Meteorology said Ita had weakened to a category one and was 115 kilometres northwest of Cairns and moving south at 11 kilometres an hour.

Still packing a fair punch

Winds gusting up to 120 kilometres per hour were forecast to hit towards Port Douglas on Saturday, with gusts up to 100kph as far south as Cairns and surrounding inland areas.

Tropical storms are common in northeastern Australia.

Before weakening offshore, Ita had threatened to be stronger but not as widespread as the monster Cyclone Yasi system that tore through the region just over three years ago, ripping homes from their foundations and devastating crops.

The Bureau of Meteorology also warned of heavy rainfall possibly leading to flash flooding and coastal inundation from a storm surge.

Cooktown Mayor Peter Scott told Australian Associated Press he felt relieved as he had feared waking to widespread devastation.

"There's a lot of vegetation on the road and we've unfortunately seen some buildings damaged," he said.

"But there hasn't been a lot of structural damage." Local resident Diana Spiker spent the morning walking her dog and had also expected far worse.

"They were talking about a category five at one stage so I thought there would have been a lot more damage," she said.

The bureau's Ken Kato said Ita could be further downgraded to a tropical low.

He expected the cyclone to head out "into the Coral Sea somewhere off the north tropical coast" on Sunday or Monday.

"But it's still packing a fair punch," Mr Kato added.

Meanwhile, the bureau issued a severe weather warning with strong winds and large waves for the Sydney region.

Gusts peaking at 100 kph were predicted to hit the southeastern coastal areas Saturday as a low pressure system developing off New South Wales deepens before moving inland towards the Hunter Valley in the afternoon.

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