Cyclone Debbie: Queensland braced for dangerous floods

BBC | Published: 08:50, Mar 29,2017

Cyclone Debbie

A yacht lies beside a road after Cyclone Debbie hit the northern Queensland town of Airlie Beach, located south of Townsville in Australia, March 29, 2017. — Reuters photo

A 1,300km (800 miles) stretch of Australia's north-east coast is at dangerous risk of flooding after a powerful cyclone, authorities warn.

Cyclone Debbie has caused major damage, torrential rain and power cuts to tens of thousands of homes.

Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has activated a disaster response plan.

With up to 250mm of rain forecast on Wednesday, authorities have pleaded with people to stay off roads to avoid being stranded in floodwaters.

‘We've already had two instances of people who were caught in a vehicle,’ said Queensland Fire and Emergency Services commissioner Katarina Carroll, adding flood rescues were now her ‘biggest concern’.

Her warning was reiterated by Turnbull, who said nature had ‘flung her worst’ at Queensland.

Cyclone Debbie made landfall between Bowen and Airlie Beach as a category four storm, whipping gusts of up to 263km/h (163mph), and is now moving inland as a tropical low storm.

Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said three people had been confirmed injured, but that number could rise.

‘For many people this morning, they are waking up and they are seeing the devastation that has happened in their communities,’ Palaszczuk told reporters.

She urged insurance companies to ‘treat people with respect’ following the disaster, saying 63,000 people had spent the night without power.

Palaszczuk also expressed concerns that injured people were unable to contact emergency services.

Queensland deputy police commissioner Steve Gollschewski said the worst-hit towns included Bowen, Airlie Beach, Proserpine and Collinsville.

‘Those areas and the Whitsunday Islands remain difficult for us to contact and to get into,’ he said.

The Australian Defence Force has been despatched in Queensland to begin public infrastructure repairs.

Officials warned people to stay indoors until it was safe to go outside, while electricity providers said it was not known when power would be restored to houses.

Turnbull government organisations, banks and insurers to ‘pull together’ to repair damage.

More than 25,000 people were urged to evacuate their homes ahead of predictions the cyclone would be Queensland's most damaging since 2011.

One person in the Whitsunday Islands compared the winds to ‘freight trains coming through left and right’.

‘The trees are going wild,’ the man, identified only as Charlie, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. ‘The place is just shaking continuously.’

In other developments - police warned people to beware of fallen power lines, which could be deadly, the Insurance Council of Australia declared the cyclone a ‘catastrophe’, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park authority said it feared Debbie might have caused extensive damage to reefs in its path.

It made landfall at close to its peak intensity, Jeffrey D Kepert, head of the Bureau of Meteorology's High Impact Weather Research told the BBC. Crucially, it is also very slow-moving. That ‘can be more damaging because the duration of strong winds is longer. As structures experience a longer battering, things like metal fatigue set in, leading to more damage. Also, more of the rain falls in the same area rather than being spread out, leading to a greater flood risk’.

Fortunately Debbie looks likely to head between two cities so ‘the destruction is likely to be somewhat less than feared’. And while tourists are less able to evacuate from the resorts that have been hit more directly, their hotels are ‘likely to have higher foundations’ and be built more solidly than many ordinary homes near the coast.

The storm will still be around even as it downgrades but, as a silver lining, it could bring some relief to farmers affected by drought. ‘Hopefully that will bring a bit of rain to the interior,’ professor King says.

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