TULLY, Australia – The most powerful storm in a century ripped across Australia's northeast coast early Thursday, blasting apart houses, laying waste to banana crops and leaving boats lying in the streets of wind- and wave-swept towns.
Authorities said they were surprised to learn at daybreak that no one had been reported killed by Cyclone Yasi, but cautioned that bad news could eventually emerge from communities still cut off after the overnight storm, which left several thousand people homeless.
"It was really terrifying, but we were safe," said Barbara Kendall, who spent a sleepless night in a basement parking garage with her husband and four cats after being evacuated from their coastal home at Kurrimine Beach. "It's a terrifying sound. It's really hard to describe. All I could hear was the screeching of the wind."
Emergency services fanned out as to assess damage across a disaster zone stretching more than 190 miles (300 kilometers) in Queensland state, using chain saws to cut through debris blocking roads.
The main coastal highway was a slalom course of downed trees and power lines, surrounded by scenes of devastation: Roofs peeled back from houses, fields of sugar cane and banana shredded and flattened, once-green expanses stripped to brown soil.
Cyclone Yasi was moving inland and losing power Thursday. But drenching rains were still falling, adding woes to a state where Australia's worst flooding in decades has killed 35 people since late November.
Hundreds of thousands of people had spent the night huddled in evacuation centers or bunkered in their homes as the cyclone hit, packing howling winds gusting to 186 mph (300 kph) and causing tidal surges that swamped coastal areas.
"Nothing's been spared. The devastation is phenomenal, like nothing I've ever experienced," David Brook, the manager of a resort at Mission Beach, where the core of the storm hit the coast around midnight, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.
"Vegetation has been reduced to sticks," said Sgt. Dan Gallagher, a Mission Beach police officer.
At Tully, about 12 miles (20 kilometers) inland along the storm's path, the main street was littered with twisted pieces of metal that were once house roofs and jagged shards of glass from shattered shopfront windows. Queensland state Premier Anna Bligh said one in three houses in the town of 3,500 people either were demolished by the storm or had the roof ripped off.
Tully and Mission Beach were among a handful of towns in a relatively narrow band that bore the brunt of Yasi's fury as it stormed ashore.
Further south, emergency workers had cut their way into the coastal community of Cardwell on Thursday morning and found older houses wrecked and boats pushed up into the town, she said. The entire community was believed to have evacuated before the storm.
Along the coastal highway, tidal floodwaters periodically cut the highway, temporarily stranding convoys of people trying to return home to see what was left.
Kendall, from Kurrimine Beach, sat stranded in her car next to her meowing cats Loly, Blossom, Spingle and Junior on her way back from the evacuation center in Innisfail. The trunk of her car was filled with her most essential items: photographs, heirlooms and precious jewelry.
Electricity supplies were cut to more than 180,000 houses in the region — a major fruit and sugarcane-growing area and also considered a tourist gateway to the Great Barrier Reef — and police warned people to stay inside until the danger from fallen power lines and other problems was past.
As the day wore on, authorities allowed more than 10,000 people to leave the 20 evacuation centers where they stayed overnight.
"I'm very relieved this morning, but I do stress these are very early reports," Bligh said of the information that no one had been killed overnight. "It's a long way to go before I say we've dodged any bullets."
Ahead of the storm, Bligh and other officials said the storm was more powerful than any that had struck the coast since 1918, and warned the country to expect widespread and destruction and likely deaths.
Amid the chaos, a bit of happy news: a baby girl was born at a Cairns evacuation center just before dawn with the help of a British midwife on holiday, councilor Linda Cooper said.
The largest towns in the path of the cyclone, including Cairns and Townsville, were spared the worst of the fierce winds. Trees were knocked down, but few buildings were damaged, authorities said. But Townsville was suffering widespread flooding.
Officials said it was too early to cite a total cost of the damage, but it was sure to add substantially to the $5.6 billion the government says already was caused by the earlier flooding.
Queensland officials had warned people for days to stock up on bottled water and food, and to board or tape up their windows. People in low-lying or exposed areas were told to evacuate. Bligh credited the preparations with saving lives.
Australia's huge, sparsely populated tropical north is battered annually by about six cyclones — called typhoons throughout much of Asia and hurricanes in the Western hemisphere. Building codes have been strengthened since Cyclone Tracy devastated the city of Darwin in 1974, killing 71 in one of Australia's worst natural disasters.
Bureau of Meteorology: http://www.bom.gov.au/cyclone/index.shtml