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Powerful Cyclone Closes in on Australia's Northeast, Evacuations Ordered

By James Regan

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Tourists and coastal residents were evacuating parts of the Great Barrier Reef on Thursday as a powerful cyclone intensified in the Coral Sea and made its way towards Australia's northeast.

Cyclone Ita is forecast to make landfall on Friday north of the tropical city of Cairns, bringing with it the possibility of

widespread flooding and damage, emergency officials said.

Wind gusts of up to 280 kmh (175 mph) are forecast, bringing with them torrential rain, according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology said.

"The sea is likely to rise steadily up to a level which will be significantly above the normal tide, with damaging waves, strong currents and flooding of low-lying areas extending some way inland," the bureau said.

The storm was still classified as a tropical depression when it barreled across the Solomon Islands late last week, killing at least 23 people near the capital, Honiara, according to the United Nations.

In Australia, rescue helicopters have been sent to find and warn people in remote regions about the approaching storm. Campgrounds have been ordered to close and islands near the coast evacuated.

A Great Barrier Reef resort located on Lizard Island 240 km (150 miles) north of Cairns confirmed it had evacuated all its guests on Thursday.

The storm's projected course should take it across a sparsely populated section of Queensland state around 0100 GMT on Friday, spreading over an area of about 400 km (250 miles).

Queensland Premier Campbell Newman said up to 9,000 people could be affected by the cyclone, including residents and visitors in Port Douglas, a favorite vacation spot for many international tourists.

Energy minister Mark McArdle said Ita was potentially the most powerful storm to threaten the region since Cyclone Yasi three years ago. He said residents should be prepared to face the loss of electricity for a month or longer.

Cyclone Yasi caused an estimated A$3.5 billion in property damage and lost tourism earnings when it ripped through Queensland in February 2011.

(Reporting by James Regan)

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