Army assesses damage after Cyclone Debbie smashes north-east Australia, more than 63,000 without electricity

A damaged building is seen behind a boat that was pushed onto a bank due to Cyclone Debbie in the township of Airlie Beach, located south of the northern Australian city of Townsville.
A damaged building is seen behind a boat that was pushed onto a bank due to Cyclone Debbie in the township of Airlie Beach, located south of the northern Australian city of Townsville.PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (REUTERS/AFP) -  Australia’s army and emergency workers headed to areas of tropical Queensland state hardest hit by Cyclone Debbie on Wednesday (March 29), finding roads blocked by fallen trees, sugarcane fields flattened and widespread damage in coastal towns.

More than 63,000 people were without electricity.

No deaths were reported after Debbie tore a trail of destruction through Australia’s north-east on Tuesday as a category four storm, one rung below the most dangerous wind speed level, before being gradually downgraded to a tropical low.

Thousands of people took shelter as tourist resorts along the world-famous Great Barrier Reef and coastal areas were belted with wind gusts stronger than 260 km per hour. They woke to streets filled with debris. 

"It’s been absolutely smashed. You can’t get out or in there’s so many trees down,” Jon Clements, who was holidaying on Hamilton Island in the Whitsundays when the storm hit, told Reuters. “There are hardly any leaves left on any trees.”

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the worst-hit area was the Whitsunday coast and islands, some 900km north-west of the state capital, Brisbane. Water was cut to Daydream Island, where there were 200 guests and 100 staff, she said.

At Mackay, not far from the Whitsunday coast, fences and sheds were blown away, rivers were swollen and high tides and heavy swells still pounded the shore on Wednesday, Nine Network television footage showed. 


A boat is seen smashed against the bank at Shute Harbour, Airlie Beach, Australia. PHOTO: REUTERS

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told reporters at the Crisis Coordination Centre in Canberra: “Nature has flung her worst at the people of Queensland. There will be ... a lot of damage done now to recover, to clean up, to restore power, to make power lines safe.” 

Queensland State Emergency Services Assistant Commissioner Peter Jeffrey said there had been “a limited amount of severe damage”. 

Campbell Fuller, a spokesman for the Insurance Council of Australia, said it was too early to put a dollar figure on the damage. 

 
 

A defence force fly-over was scheduled to assess the damage, Palaszczuk told reporters in Brisbane.

Hundreds of hectares of sugarcane crops had been flattened, Dan Galligan, chief executive of industry body Canegrowers, said in a statement.

Townsville Airport reopened, although airlines Qantas and Virgin said flights to Hamilton Island, Proserpine and Mackay were cancelled. Ports at Abbot Point, Hay Point and Mackay were closed.

BHP Billiton said in a statement that work remained halted at its coal mines in the storm’s path, as did Stanmore Coal Limited.

Heavy fain fell over a wide swath of Queensland on Wednesday as the system moved inland, with flood and poor weather warnings in place statewide.

Only two injuries were reported, police said. 

One family near Airlie Beach, over which the eye of the storm passed, had a particularly dramatic night. 

Palaszczuk said the family welcomed a baby girl who was born inside the Whitsunday Ambulance Station as the storm raged outside.  


Dave Mcinnerney inspects the damage to his motel at Shute Harbour, Airlie Beach, Australia. PHOTO: EPA

"LIKE A WARZONE'

Great Barrier Reef islands, popular with foreign tourists, were among the worst hit. Daydream Island Resort said it bore the brunt of the storm and sustained significant damage, including to its jetty and accommodation wings.

"Conditions were extreme with heavy rainfall and strong wind gusts causing damage to the resort and surrounds," the resort said in statement, adding that all guests had been accounted for.

As day broke, scenes of devastation began to emerge. Pictures posted on social media showed a light plane flipped upside down, battered yachts washed ashore, power poles down and trees fallen on houses. 


Boats are washed ashore at Airlie Beach, Australia. PHOTO: EPA

Whitsunday Regional Council mayor Andrew Willcox described the scene in cyclone-ravaged Bowen as "like a war zone".

"This beautiful seaside town is now half-wrecked, but we will rebuild," he told Channel Nine television. In the mining town of Collinsville, roofs were reported ripped off houses from a storm residents called "savage" and emotionally draining, with winds raging for hours.

"I'm shattered emotionally and physically. I've gone through the worst 24 hours I've experienced in my 53 years," a local identified only as Julie told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Wind gusts of up to 270 kph were reported near Debbie’s broad core.