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Cyclone Larry Devastates Australian Towns, Crops; Second Storm Approaches

Stephanie Peatling in Sydney
for National Geographic News
March 21, 2006
 
Northern Queensland, Australia (see map), which was battered by Cyclone Larry on Monday
morning, is bracing for more wild weather later in the week.

A second tropical cyclone, Wati, has reached Category Two status and is slowly approaching the continent's northeastern coast.

Tropical cyclones, which are known as hurricanes when they form in the North Atlantic Ocean basin, are often ranked in intensity according to the Saffir-Simpson scale. (Read "'Category Five': How a Hurricane Yardstick Came to Be.")

Larry crossed the coast on Monday as a Category Five storm—the strongest on the intensity scale—with winds of up to 180 miles an hour (290 kilometers an hour). The tempest tore the roofs off buildings and left about 120,000 people without power.

About 30 people have been treated for minor injuries and a hundred are being housed in emergency accommodations.

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology's Tropical Cyclone Warning Center has now downgraded Larry from a cyclone to a severe low-pressure system.

Strong winds are still whipping across the region, but the storm is expected to dissipate completely before it reaches the Northern Territory border.

Meanwhile Cyclone Wati has been steadily moving toward the Queensland coast, and an upper-level storm system moving into the region is complicating predictions of the cyclone's path.

According to a bulletin issued today by the Bureau of Meteorology, Wati could be captured by the system and move parallel to the coast, or it could linger over open water until the system weakens and then resume its track toward land.

Helping Hands

As officials monitor Wati's activities, hundreds of police and defense force personnel have been sent to northern Queensland to help with cleanup efforts.

Local disaster response teams are estimating the cleanup could take up to six weeks, but continued poor weather is hampering efforts to survey the damage.

"This is certainly a very fearful and challenging time for the people of Far North Queensland," Australia's Prime Minister, John Howard, said yesterday.

"I want them to know that their fellow Australians are with them and will respond in an appropriate fashion to any request for help.''

Food, water, generators, tarpaulins, and fuel are already being rushed to the areas from other states.

The Australian Defense Force has sent a six-person medical team to the area as well as a fleet of aircraft as part of Operation Larry Assist.

Prime Minister Howard was quick to point out the preparation done ahead of Larry's arrival and the speed with which Australia's emergency response teams swung into action.

"Australians are very good at responding to these things, because everybody pitches in without restraint and without any kind of holding back to help,'' Howard said.

Prime Minister Howard plans to visit the affected areas on Wednesday.

We Have No Bananas

But the region's local federal representative, Bob Katter, remains concerned about Larry's ongoing financial impact.

The Queensland towns of Innisfail and Babinda are home to Australia's banana industry, which has been all but wiped out by the cyclone.

"The [region's] tourism industry is based upon the banana pickers, the young backpackers, young, glamorous sort of people,'' Katter told a local radio station.

Katter, who has been driving around the area, said the damage was the worst he'd ever seen despite living through 15 cyclones.

Banana industry officials are meeting today to discuss what industry assistance is needed.

Prices for the fruit are expected to double after Larry destroyed about 80 percent of Australia's crop.

The chief executive of the Australian Banana Growers Council, Tony Heidrich, said about 200,000 tons (181,500 metric tons) of fruit worth about 300 million Australian dollars had been wiped out.

"I spoke to a big grower this morning who's already laid off three-quarters of his staff,'' Heidrich said. "There's going to be massive job losses, and that'll flow through to the communities."

"We'll start to see the first flush of fruit about nine months from now, but certainly most growers won't be coming back into production for 12 months. Then probably another 12 months on top of that before all farms are back into full production.''

The storm also destroyed at least 15 million Australian dollars worth of avocados as it ripped across Queensland orchards in the middle of the harvesting period, according to industry group Avocados Australia.

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