Australians voiced relief and surprise after one of the world's most powerful cyclones spared the nation's northeast coast from expected devastation on Thursday, with no reported deaths despite winds tearing off roofs and toppling trees.
Cyclone Yasi, roughly the size of Italy and packing winds of up to around 300 km per hour (186 miles per hour) and waves up to 30 feet, threatened Australia with its second major natural disaster in as many months this week but ended up missing heavily populated areas.
The massive cyclone, which hit at midnight (2am GMT), missed major population centers of Cairns and Townsville, making landfall at the smaller coastal communities of Mission Beach, Cardwell and Tully.
"It's amazing no-one was killed. The wind was howling like a banshee," said farmer Nathan Fisher, speaking out the window of his four-wheel-drive vehicle as he returned to his property from a shelter in the small town of Innisfail.
Australia, a vast continent with less than three people for every square km, is one of the few countries where a storm as large and terrifying as Yasi -- with a diameter of up to around 500 km (310 miles) -- could simply miss major cities.
Even as Yasi began its 1,000 km (620 mile) inland march into the outback on Thursday, weakening all the time, tracking forecasts showed it was likely to hit only a handful of small towns in a region home to around 400,000 people.
The lack of any major damage or substantial casualties was also attributed to several days of cyclone preparation, early evacuations, laws that ensure newer homes and buildings are strong enough to survive a cyclone, and less than expected sea flooding as the cyclone missed the peak tides.
The cyclone came ashore along hundreds of km of coast in Queensland state and then drove inland, bringing heavy rains to mining areas struggling to recover from recent devastating floods.
"Early reports have given us all a great sense of relief," Queensland Premier Anna Bligh told reporters, adding the cyclone emergency was still unfolding.
She said that in some places 90 per cent of homes had suffered serious structural damage and he region faced a long and arduous recovery.
"Some people in this region will be going back to their communities, going back to their neighborhoods, and facing scenes of considerable devastation. There are people now that have lost their homes, they lost their farms, they have lost their crops and they have lost their livelihoods and I have no doubt that many of them will experience a great sense of despair."
Yasi was rated a maximum-strength category five storm, on a par with Hurricane Katrina, which wrecked New Orleans in 2005, killing 1,500 people and causing $81 billion in damage. (At right: Yasi's eye at category 5)
It was downgraded to a category-two storm as it moved inland but its core remained very destructive, the Bureau of Meteorology said.
The destruction wrought by Yasi is likely to make life in north Queensland very difficult in the coming days and weeks. Flooding resulting from heavy rain and fallen trees had cut major roads and rail lines and power was down to 180,000 buildings. Due to damage to infrastructure, residents of Townsville, which is home to 180,000 people, were asked to ration water use.
Ron Darlington, resident of Tully, where 90 per cent of buildings were damaged, said the scenes at dawn were "unbelievable". "There is not a blade of grass, there is not a leaf on a tree, the power lines are down, most of the roads are blocked, every single house has been damaged."
Noelene Byrne, also in Tully, said it looked like "bombs have come through and destroyed everything".
The biggest impact could be on the economy. Many sugarcane crops have been totally destroyed by Cyclone Yasi, as the industry fears losses of up to $500 million.
Reports from the worst-hit town of Tully and its surrounding area indicate some farms have been wiped out by the category five tropical cyclone, industry body Canegrowers said today.
"Many sugarcane growers in far north Queensland have lost everything - house, crop, machinery and livelihood - during the devastating force of cyclone Yasi," chief executive Steve Greenwood said.
While Tully, Mission Beach and Cardwell appear the worst hit, destruction has also occurred between Cairns and Townsville, an area in which almost one third of Australia's sugarcane is grown.
The full damage to crops is still being assessed, but first indications show up to half the region's sugar crop has been affected, Mr Greenwood said.
The full extent of damage is likely to be more clear over the coming days, although the impact of the storm will not be completely known until harvesting begins mid-year, he said.
Due to the nature of sugarcane production, the impact of Yasi on the industry is likely to be felt over several years. Australia is the world's third largest raw sugar exporter.
Banana plantations fared no better than sugar cane plantations. Some banana plantations were destroyed and under water after Yasi went through; in other banana plantations the trees were uprooted and knocked over. Full damage assessment has not yet been completed.
Some coal mines remained shut after the cyclone passed, although others were starting to resume operations. Queensland accounts for 90 percent of Australia's steel making coal exports.
TOURIST AREAS HIT, TREES SNAPPED
The eye of the cyclone crossed the coast near the tourist town of Mission Beach, where devastating Cyclone Larry struck in 2006, and damaged areas around Tully and Cardwell, where many older homes, built before tougher building codes were applied, suffered severe damage.
Authorities said initial reports suggested only about 100 houses had suffered major damage. There were no initial reports of serious injuries although two people were reported as missing in Innisfail.
Hills around Tully were covered in snapped trees and scoured almost clean of vegetation by the force of the wind. The main road into Tully was flooded and several houses had roofs torn off, with crumpled tin lying in flooded fields.
At Innisfail, Bill Biscow stood in flood waters and cleaned up roofing shredded by the storm. "It was scary, but the damage is not as bad as last time when the place got flattened. Cyclone Larry probably blew away the oldest buildings."
In the coastal hamlet of Cowley Beach, steel roofs were torn from houses and twisted around power poles.
"I've been in the area for a long time and I've seen many of these, but this one is the biggest I've ever seen," said 84-year-old Robert Hurst, cleaning up his still-intact house.
A weather bureau spokesman said a storm surge of two meters (six feet) above normal tides had inundated one stretch of coast but the surges were not as severe as authorities had feared.
The cyclone had cut electricity to around 200,000 homes, but main links to the power grid remained intact.
Queensland has had a cruel summer, with floods sweeping across it and other eastern states in recent months, killing 35 people and causing damage estimated at $10 billion or more.
Reuters,"Relief as Australia mops up from giant cyclone", accessed February 2, 2011
News.com.au, "Cyclone Yasi devastates sugar industry", accessed February 2, 2011
The Telegraph, "Cyclone Yasi: preparation saved thousands of lives", accessed February 2, 2011