Terrifying Storm Slams Into Northeast Australia

February 20, 2015 –¬†Tens of thousands of residents in north-eastern Australia were warned on Friday to take shelter wherever they could after a huge storm unexpectedly intensified into a cyclone before it made landfall, cutting rail links and closing ports.

Cyclone Marcia was upgraded overnight to a category 5 system, the highest storm rating. It crossed land with wind speeds of up to 285km/h, according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

Emergency services rushed to evacuate almost 1,000 homes in Marcia’s path in tropical Queensland state but told others it was too late and urged them to hunker down in the safest places they could find.

“Over the next 24 hours, Queenslanders are about to go through a harrowing and terrifying experience,” Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk told a news conference. “We are now very concerned with people’s safety.”

Rail lines to coastal ports, an essential part of Queensland’s AUS$280 billion (US$141 billion pounds) commodities export-driven economy, have been brought to a standstill. Staff were evacuated or sought refuge in shelters purpose-built to withstand cyclones.

More than 10 percent of Australia’s sugar crop is at risk from Marcia, an industry body warned. The world’s No. 3 exporter of raw sugar is set to produce 4.6 million tonnes of the commodity in 2015.

Emergency services handed out thousands of sandbags to protect homes and businesses from massive tidal surges and opened inland evacuation shelters, but said there was little more they could do until the storm passed.

“Our primary focus from this point on … is the safety of all human life,” Queensland Police Commissioner Ian Stewart told reporters. “You must find shelter.”

Hundreds of residents were taking refuge in the small Queensland town of Yeppoon, which braced overnight for a direct hit from what meteorologists warned could be among the most powerful cyclones on record for Australia.

Meteorologists said the worst of the winds should ease by Friday afternoon but warned that heavy rains and flooding were likely to continue for several days and extend inland.

On Friday, BHP Billiton suspended rail lines hauling coal from its inland collieries to the massive Hay Point shipping terminal until further notice.

Marcia’s forecast trajectory indicated the impact on coal mining was expected to be less severe than in 2011, when Queensland missed its overall annual coal export target by 40 million tonnes after storms dumped unprecedented amounts of rain into coal pits.

Data supplied by the Bureau of Meteorology showed Marcia making landfall roughly 125km north of Boyne Island in Queensland, where Rio Tinto operates Australia’s largest aluminium smelter.

At the Curtis Island liquefied natural gas hub, engineering group Bechtel said employees had been taken to their homes on the mainland.

It was also looming as a gloomy weekend for sports fans, with torrential rains from Marcia likely to force a halt to Australia’s second World Cup cricket match against Bangladesh scheduled to be played in the Queensland capital on Saturday.

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