Australia Cyclone: Thousands Homeless, Troops Helping With Relief Efforts - - Tyler, Longview, Jacksonville |ETX News

3/21/06-Innisfail, Australia

Australia Cyclone: Thousands Homeless, Troops Helping With Relief Efforts

Troops began moving aid to the cyclone-shattered town of Innisfail on Tuesday as residents picked through waterlogged streets littered with rubble and mangled roofs destroyed by Australia's most powerful cyclone in decades.

Forecasters warned on Tuesday that more wild weather was heading for Australia, with a Category 2 cyclone brewing in the Coral Sea even as Australians were taking stock of devastation wreaked by what officials said was the most powerful cyclone to hit the country in three decades.

Cyclone Wati was churning slowly toward northeast Australia and was expected to hit later in the week, several hundred kilometers (miles) south of the region hammered by Cyclone Larry, a Category 5 storm with winds up to 290 kilometers per hour (180 mph), said Tropical Cyclone Warning Center senior forecaster Jeff Calllaghan.

There still was no official estimate for the number of people left homeless, but the region's mayor said he expected it to be in the thousands. After touring the area and talking to local officials, federal lawmaker Bob Katter told The Associated Press that up to 7,000 people were made homeless by the storm.

"There most certainly would be around 7,000 people ... that are effectively homeless," he said. "They're sitting in four walls but no roof."

Katter was speaking after attending a huge barbecue in Innisfail held to feed the local community with meat from butchers that otherwise would soon start rotting due to the lack of electricity to power refrigerators. Hundreds of townsfolk attended the barbecue.

Trucks carrying soldiers rumbled through the streets of Innisfail, the town of 8,500 that bore the brunt of category-5 Cyclone Larry when it slammed into the coast of northeast Australia just before dawn Monday.

"One of the most immediate needs is to get shelter over roofless homes, and there are many," said Charlie McKillop, a spokesman for Attorney General Philip Ruddock, whose department was helping coordinate aid.

U.S. President George W. Bush called Australian Prime Minister John Howard early Tuesday to offer American help if needed.

"Of course we are able ourselves to look after this," Howard said. "But it was a very generous, thoughtful gesture on his part and I thank him for it."

Reporters who flew into Innisfail on Tuesday saw scenes of devastation -- rain forest shredded by the winds, acres of sugar and banana plantations flattened, the trees and cane on the ground next to their stumps, pointing in the direction that the cyclone tore past.

"It looks like it's just been napalmed," said helicopter pilot Ian Harris. "That's normally pristine rain forest."

An apartment block with its roof torn off looked from the air like a doll's house.

But despite the widespread destruction, nobody was killed by Larry and only about 30 people suffered minor injuries, local officials said.

Rosarie Cullinane, a 24-year-old backpacker from Cork in Ireland, had been working at a local hostel for six weeks before the cyclone struck, organizing work at local plantations for fellow travelers.

"I never expected anything like this," she said Tuesday. "I did hear about cyclones but I didn't think it was going to be that bad."

She said backpackers huddled in their hostel wrapped in mattresses as the storm raged outside.

None of the travelers were injured, but they were leaving town Tuesday -- their prospects for work evaporated when Larry flattened the town's banana plantations.

Innisfail's main street was littered with rubble from badly damaged buildings and the corrugated metal used for roofing in the region. In some parts of the street people waded through knee-deep water.

About 120 troops were helping deliver aid, while clean up and specialist urban search and rescue crews were heading to the town. The military also was transporting a mobile kitchen and water purification plant to Innisfail.

Among other supplies flowing into the town were nearly 40,000 liters (10,500 gallons) of water, 6,000 in-flight meals provided by national flag carrier Qantas, as well as gas and gasoline.

Prime Minister John Howard on Tuesday pledged that his administration would help shattered communities rebuild.

"The federal government will give what is needed to get these communities back on their feet," Howard said in a radio interview.

Neil Clarke, mayor of Johnstone Shire which includes Innisfail, compared the devastation to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

"Southeast Asia had their tsunami, we've got our own ... disaster," Clarke told Macquarie Radio network.

Queensland state political leader Premier Peter Beattie said it could take days to restore power and water supplies to Innisfail, a farming town about 100 kilometers (60 miles) south of the major tourist town of Cairns.

The storm's casualty toll was low because people left town or went to shelters after authorities posted warnings. Residents and officials were mindful of the damage Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans and Mississippi last August, said Ben Creagh, an emergency services spokesman for Queensland state.

Farmers were among the hardest hit. The region is a major growing region for bananas and sugar cane, and vast tracts of the crops were flattened.

President of the Australian Banana Growers' Council, Patrick Leahy, said he faced at least six months without an income after Cyclone Larry destroyed his banana crop.

"We're going to take at least A$300 to A$350 million (US$215 million to US$250 million) out of the economy of north Queensland over the next nine months," he added.

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

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