Strong winds and driving rain have begun to buffet north-east Australia as one of the country’s biggest storms arrives.
Officials have issued dire warnings of potential devastation for cities and towns dotted along a stretch of coast more than 190 miles long in north Queensland state as Cyclone Yasi bore down on the area.
In Innisfail, a town about 55 miles south of Cairns that is nearly in the direct path of the storm, mayor Bill Shannon said he saw the roof torn off a building near the local government building where some 500 people are sheltering.
“We’re just hoping and praying we can all get through the night,” said Mr Shannon.
The storm will compound misery in Queensland, which has already been hit by months of flooding that killed 35 people and inundated hundreds of communities.
Yasi was predicted to hit north of the main waterlogged area, but emergency services are already stretched and the whole state is flood-weary.
The first winds began howling throughout Cairns where dozens of guests at a waterfront hotel took cover in the central ballroom as lights throughout the building flickered. Staff members pinned curtains shut over windows that were in danger of shattering and handed out torches.
Winds at the centre of the storm were gusting up to 186mph, and the front was about 300 miles across. The worst of the winds were expected to last up to four hours on the coast, though blustery conditions and heavy rain could last for 24 hours.
Power was cut to some 90,000 houses as the wind knocked out lines, and that number was expected to rise.
Yasi was also forecast to push huge volumes of sea water inland in storm surges that would almost certainly flood some coastal communities, said the Bureau of Meteorology.