DARWIN, Australia – Residents of the northern city of Darwin braced Monday for Tropical Cyclone Monica, a Category 5 storm packing 217 mph winds that one forecaster said might be the fiercest in Australian history.
The cyclone lashed sparsely populated islands off Australia's Northern Territory, according to the national Bureau of Meteorology.
Senior forecaster Gordon Jackson said the storm was "quite possibly" the worst cyclone to hit Australia — more powerful than even Cyclone Tracy, which struck Darwin on Christmas Eve 1974, leveling the city and killing 65 people.
"It's definitely the most intense to hit the Northern Territory," Jackson said. "It's worse than Tracy because it's a Category 5, whereas Tracy was a Category 4."
Since Cyclone Tracy hit, Darwin has been rebuilt with homes intended to be strong enough to survive severe storms.
The cyclone has been tracking along Australia's northern coast for several days, threatening a number of remote Aboriginal communities but causing no injuries or major damage. It first struck the northeastern coast of Queensland state last week as a Category 3 storm, but has since intensified to a Category 5 — the most powerful designation.
The Bureau of Meteorology said the "very destructive core" of the cyclone was expected to hit the Northern Territory's remote Coburg Peninsula, then weaken slightly as it moves toward Darwin.
"We're hoping as it hits the land it will lose some intensity, but there's no doubt a serious cyclone is on the way," said forecaster Andrew Tupper.
Satellite pictures showed the eye of the massive storm system tracking directly toward Darwin, which has a population of around 100,000. Residents were advised to secure their homes and stock up on supplies.
Uranium miner Energy Resources of Australia shut down its operations Monday as a precaution. The company, which is majority owned by mining giant Rio Tinto, operates the Ranger uranium mine located 155 miles east of Darwin, which lies in the cyclone's path.
Monica came just one month after Category 5 Cyclone Larry tore through the rural community of Innisfail, about 62 miles south of Cairns, destroying thousands of homes and devastating banana and sugar cane plantations with 180 mph winds.
Cyclones — called typhoons throughout much of Asia and hurricanes in the Western hemisphere — are large-scale rotating storms that generate high winds and typically form at sea before moving inland.
They are relatively common along Australia's remote northern from November to April during the "wet" season.