A powerful cyclone tore into Australia’s northeastern coast on Tuesday, forcing thousands of people to flee, shuttering coal to gold mines and prompting insurers to declare a catastrophe.
Cyclone Debbie made landfall near Airlie Beach, a tourist resort and gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, at midday with wind gusts up to 260 kilometers per hour (162 mph), according to the Bureau of Meteorology. Airlines canceled flights, as emergency services braced for flooding and destruction.
“We are going to get lots of reports of damage,” Queensland Police Commissioner Ian Stewart told reporters. “Sadly, I think that we will also receive more reports of injuries, if not death.”
It’s the worst storm to hit Queensland since Cyclone Yasi — the most severe at category five — badly damaged sugar- and banana-producing regions in 2011. Debbie, which made landfall as a category four cyclone, was downgraded one step as the weather system moved inland, bringing heavy rainfall that’s expected to cause flash flooding.
The Insurance Council of Australia declared a catastrophe, with insurers anticipating thousands of claims. As many as 25,000 residents evacuated low-lying areas due to an expected storm surge. One man was taken to hospital Tuesday after being badly injured by a collapsing wall, police said.
The cyclone’s wind speeds have peaked, though the storm will continue to deliver gusts of up to 165 kilometers per hour and heavy rainfall through Wednesday that’s likely to cause major river flooding, the bureau said in a statement posted to its website Tuesday.
In the town of Bowen, close to where Debbie made landfall, the bowling club was turned into an emergency shelter for nursing home residents. The storm has been “blowing its head off,” said club vice chairman Ron McGree, who was sanguine about the disruption. “We only get one or two cyclones every now and again. We pay a lot more in our insurance of course,” he said by telephone.
Australian Army Brigadier Christopher Field will coordinate recovery efforts, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said in an emailed statement. Field served as chief of operations following Yasi six years ago, she said.
More than 45,000 properties had power outages, according to Ergon Energy. Vodafone Australia said customers may be experiencing little or no mobile service due to the outages.
BHP Billiton Ltd., the world’s biggest miner, said it was suspending operations at five coal mines due to the storm. Glencore Plc. and gold miners Evolution Mining Ltd. and Resolute Mining Ltd. were among other firms impacted. Rail freight operations and shipping were also affected, while industry group Canegrowers said sugar-cane crops could be damaged.
There should be “minimal impact on broader economic growth” as the storm is hitting late in the March quarter, Craig James, a senior economist at the securities unit of Commonwealth Bank of Australia, said in a note. “Any delays to production should be caught up over the June quarter. Any repairs to damaged buildings and infrastructure will boost economic activity over coming quarters.”