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Cyclone Debbie tears through north Australia, cutting power supply, damaging houses

Howling winds, heavy rain and huge seas pounded Australia’s northeast on Tuesday, damaging homes, wrecking jetties and cutting power to thousands of people as Tropical Cyclone Debbie tore through Queensland state’s far north.

Wind gusts stronger than 260 km per hour (160 mph) were recorded at tourist resorts along the world-famous Great Barrier Reef as the powerful storm, at category four just one rung below the most dangerous wind speed level, began to make landfall.

No injuries had been reported so far but the storm was travelling southwest so slowly that weather forecasters said cyclone conditions could persist for as long as 24 hours. “It’s very noisy: Screaming, howling wind … sounds like a freight train,” Jan Clifford said to agency by text from Airlie Beach, about 950 km (590 miles) northwest of the state capital, Brisbane.

Authorities had urged thousands of people in low-lying areas to flee their homes on Monday, in what would be the biggest evacuation seen in Australia since Cyclone Tracy devastated the northern city of Darwin on Christmas Day, 1974.

Cyclone Debbie made landfall at Airlie Beach shortly after midday local time (0200 GMT), knocking out telephone services. Torrential rain flooded streets and wind smashed windows, uprooted trees and tossed debris through streets, while jetties at Airlie Beach marina were wrecked, pictures broadcast on Nine Network television showed. Power was cut for 38,000 people in a wide area between the towns of Bowen and Mackay, north and south of Airlie Beach, utility Ergon Energy said.

Ports at Abbot Point, Mackay and Hay Point were shut, Townsville airport was closed and airlines Qantas, Jetstar, Rex and Virgin Australia cancelled several flights to and from the region. BHP Billiton and Glencore halted work at their coal mines in the storm’s path.

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