Cyclone Debbie Rips Across Australian State, Leaving ‘War Zone’; AIR Comments

By | March 29, 2017

A huge clean-up operation is under way in the Australian state of Queensland after a powerful cyclone swept through the region, tearing roofs off buildings, downing trees and forcing tourists to bunker down at luxury island resorts.

The Whitsunday Islands in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef suffered “substantial damage” when Cyclone Debbie swept through yesterday, and roads have been cut off around coastal towns, state Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk told ABC television Wednesday. Andrew Willcox, a regional mayor, told the broadcaster the town of Bowen looks “like a war zone.”

Severe weather warnings remain in place even after Debbie was downgraded to a tropical low overnight as it moved inland, with damaging wind and heavy rain expected to cause flooding, according to the Bureau of Meteorology. The storm halted at least 20 percent of coal output from the biggest producing basin in Queensland, with BHP Billiton Ltd. and Glencore Plc suspending operations.

Previous storms across the region have flooded mines, swamped machinery and washed away rail tracks, leading to price spikes amid crimped supply.

The Port of Townsville, which handles approximately A$30 million ($21 million) in trade per day, said shipping would resume this morning, after it evacuated vessels and personnel on Monday. North Queensland Bulk Ports said the Port of Mackay remains closed after a breakwater was damaged.

Authorities said there had been more than 800 calls for emergency assistance in the state and the number would rise once communications are restored to isolated communities.

The Daydream Island resort, which has 200 guests and 60 staff, was running low on water, while authorities were trying to make contact with Hayman Island, Palaszczuk said. There were limited reports of injuries in storm-affected areas, the premier told the ABC.

The sugar industry is bracing for damage that could run into tens of millions of dollars on lost yield from sugar cane that’s “been knocked over by a steam roller,” Paul Schembri, chairman of industry group Canegrowers, told the broadcaster.

About 9 million tons of sugar cane was impacted by the cyclone, however most of that is salvageable, he said.

–With assistance from Matthew Burgess.

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[Editor’s note: Cyclone Debbie landed as a Category 4 storm on the Australia Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) intensity scale (similar to a Category 3 Atlantic hurricane), with wind gusts as high as 260 km/h (160 mph) and heavy rain, according to Boston-based catastrophe modeling firm AIR Worldwide.

Debbie deintensified quickly after reaching land and by the end of the day had been downgraded to a Category 2 cyclone on the BOM scale, AIR continued.

Cyclone Debbie’s powerful winds and heavy rain caused the expected damage for this coastal region: downed trees, damaged roofs and gutters, broken windows and boats ripped from moorings, AIR said, noting that flooded streets have resulted in damage to vehicles and residential and commercial property, while caravan (trailer) parks also reported substantial damage.

Power outages occurred in a number of areas from Bowen south to Mackay, and communications to some communities has been affected.

“Prior to landfall, Australian authorities urgently urged the tens of thousands of people in the path of the storm to evacuate, particularly residents and visitors in low-lying coastal areas at risk from the expected storm surge and from flash flooding,” AIR said.

At the same time, coal mine operators shut down, as did marine terminals, while the Townsville Airport suspended operations, the modeling firm added.

“The heavy rain, which could result in flash flooding, is predicted to continue this week, with 24-hour rainfall totals of 150-200 mm (6-8 inches) expected and up to 500 mm (20 inches) possible, which could result in major river flooding,” said Dr. Anna Trevino, senior scientist at AIR Worldwide. “The Bowen region boasts a sizable agricultural industry, and farmers remain uncertain of the impact on the tomato, sugar, rice, and capsicum (pepper) crops.”

Strong building codes have been in place across north Queensland since Cyclone Tracy devastated the region in 1974, improving the resilience of structures built to code, AIR Worldwide said.

“For those structures that have been built to code, the structural building practices and requirements set down by the code will help mitigate the effects of high winds and associated debris,” the company added.

“With Cyclone Debbie’s high winds, structural damage can be significant, notably for older buildings,” according to AIR. “Rooftops remain particularly vulnerable, although windows and cladding on engineered structures also could be damaged by impact from debris. The high winds also can result in overturned caravans (trailers). Some structures in low-lying coastal areas are expected to experience storm surge damage. Given the heavy rain predicted, some structures in the inland area could experience some precipitation-induced flood damage.”

Cyclone Debbie will continue to deintensify and is expected to weaken to a Category 1 storm by early Thursday, March 29, local time, AIR said, noting that its storm track should turn south and eventually southeast as the storm dissipates.]

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