Powerful cyclone bears down on western Australia

Ships waiting to be loaded with iron ore are seen at Port Hedland in the Pilbara region of Western Australia on Dec 3, 2013. A powerful cyclone packing expected winds of more than 200 kilometres an hour was threatening Australia's west coast on
Ships waiting to be loaded with iron ore are seen at Port Hedland in the Pilbara region of Western Australia on Dec 3, 2013. A powerful cyclone packing expected winds of more than 200 kilometres an hour was threatening Australia's west coast on Monday, forcing towns into lockdown and shutting iron ore operations. -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (AFP) - A powerful cyclone packing expected winds of more than 200 kilometres an hour was threatening Australia's west coast on Monday, forcing towns into lockdown and shutting iron ore operations.

A red alert was issued for Port Hedland and South Hedland on Western Australia state's resource-rich but sparsely-populated Pilbara coast as the category three cyclone intensified offshore, forcing residents to batten down.

"This is a powerful system," Neil Bennett, a spokesman for the Cyclone Warning Centre in Perth told AFP, saying that winds were already building around Port Hedland to about 70km/h.

"Right around the eye (of the storm) we could see gusts of 200 kilometres or more."

Cyclone Christine is set to make landfall between Karratha and Port Hedland at about midnight on Monday (9pm Singapore time) and authorities are warning of damaging storm surges, particularly if it hits at high tide.

"Rapid and powerful flooding is likely as Severe Tropical Cyclone Christine approached the coast," the Western Australian Department of Fire and Emergency Services said in an alert.

"Tides may rise significantly above the normal high tide mark with damaging waves and very dangerous coastal inundation."

Residents under the red alert are already seeking shelter, and have been ordered to remain indoors and shut off gas, water and electricity.

"It's looking very ominous, certainly it's been very grey, we have been experiencing an increase in winds, we have been getting some strong gusts and we have been getting a little bit of rain," Port Hedland mayor Kelly Howlett told the ABC.

"We know we are expecting more and I guess that's what we are all bracing for and being prepared for."

Global miner BHP Billiton said its port and rail operations in Port Hedland had been suspended, with tie-down activities completed.

"All personnel have safely left site," it said in a statement.

Bennett said he did not expect the cyclone to become more extreme and develop into a category 4 or 5 - the highest rating - but said it could still cause significant damage, and would continue well inland on Tuesday.

The northwest of Western Australia has the highest tropical cyclone risk in Australia, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

On average, two cyclones affect Western Australia each year.