Cyclone Larry Lashes Australian Coast

The most powerful storm to hit Australia in three decades laid waste to its northeastern coast Monday, mowing down sugar and banana plantations with 180-mph winds but causing no deaths or serious injuries.

Innisfail, a farming town of 8,500 about 60 miles south of the tourist city of Cairns, was hardest hit, and Mayor Neil Clarke estimated that thousands of residents were left homeless.

More than 100,000 people were without power, and the damage was estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Prime Minister John Howard pledged immediate cash handouts to the homeless and said more help would be forthcoming.

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"The damage to dwellings is very extensive," Howard told the Nine Network from Melbourne. "Thank heavens it does not appear as though there have been any very serious injuries."

Clarke told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. the local airport was being cleared to house people in tents.

The town's main street was littered with mangled tin and iron roofs and shredded fronds from seaside palm trees.

"It looks like an atomic bomb hit the place," Clarke said. "We won't even have any water to drink by tomorrow."

Cyclone Larry crashed ashore south of Cairns as a Category 5 storm. Cairns is a popular jumping-off point for tourists to the Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest coral system that runs parallel to the coast for more than 1,400 miles.

Authorities said it was too early to assess possible damage to the reef, visited by nearly 2 million tourists each year.

David Wachenfeld, director of science at the government body that cares for the reef, said the worst-hit area of the reef was not one that was popular with tourists. He said it would recover — though that could take 20 years.

About 30 people were treated at hospitals for minor cuts and abrasions, said Ben Creagh, a spokesman for Queensland state Department of Emergency Services. The human toll was low because people were warned about the cyclone's approach over the weekend and either boarded up their homes and fled or hunkered down or went to evacuation centers in town while the storm raged outside, Creagh said.

"Good planning, a bit of luck — we've dodged a bullet," Creagh said.

The storm was the most powerful to hit Australia since Christmas Eve in 1974, when Cyclone Tracy destroyed the northern city of Darwin, killing 65 people.

By early Tuesday, the storm was moving inland to the west over a remote area of northeastern Australia. It was losing force and had been downgraded to a Category 2 storm.

State authorities declared a natural disaster, and Howard promised immediate payments to families of $720 for each adult and $290 for each child left homeless. Howard indicated that more aid would come after the government assessed the damage.

State Disaster Coordination Center spokesman Peter Rekers warned residents to stay on their guard for deadly animals stirred up by the storm.

"Most of the casualties and deaths resulting from cyclones happen after the storm has passed," he warned. "Keep your kids away from flooded drains, be aware of snakes and crocodiles. Those guys will have had a bad night, too."

Queensland state leader Peter Beattie said 55 percent of homes in Innisfail had been damaged, though rescue and assessment teams were yet to get full access to the swamped region. All roads into Innisfail remained blocked late Monday night.

"We haven't had a cyclone like this for decades, if we've ever had one like it before," he said. "The property damage has been immense."

The storm was so bad at its height overnight that police were unable to venture out and help terrified residents who called to say the winds had ripped roofs off buildings and destroyed their homes.

Des Hensler, an Innisfail resident, took shelter by himself in a church, with water up to his ankles.

"I don't get scared much, but this is something to make any man tremble in his boots," he told the Seven television network.

As emergency services fanned out across the region later to assess the damage, they saw devastation.

Farmers were expected to be among the hardest hit — the region is a major growing region for bananas and sugar cane, and the storm stripped plantations bare. Officials said damage would run into hundreds of millions of dollars.

"It looks like someone's gone in there with a slasher and slashed the top off everything," said Bill Horsford, an Innisfail cane farmer and member of the Cane Protection and Productivity Board.