Cyclone roars toward Australia's flooded north


SYDNEY – A strong tropical cyclone roared toward Australia's flood-ravaged northeast on Monday, prompting evacuations and warnings from officials that the storm could be the worst the already-swamped region has ever seen.

Cyclone Yasi strengthened to a Category 3 on Monday with winds up to 115 mph (185 kph). It was expected to hit the Queensland state coast on Wednesday or Thursday as a fierce Category 4 storm with wind gusts up to 162 mph (260 kph). The storm could dump up to three feet (one meter) of rain on some communities already saturated from months of flooding, Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said.

But Yasi is expected to strike somewhere along the state's north coast, largely avoiding areas to the south — including Brisbane — that have suffered the worst of the recent flooding. Still, Bligh said the storm's path could change and residents up and down the coast needed to be prepared.

"We couldn't rule out further flooding in areas that have already experienced significant flooding in the last few weeks," Bligh said.

Yasi is expected to hit Queensland just days after another tropical storm struck the state. Cyclone Anthony hit the coast early Monday morning and quickly weakened from 80 mph (130 kph) winds to a tropical low. The storm uprooted trees and knocked down power lines in some areas but spared communities any major damage.

"This is an event that we have to take seriously," Bligh said. "It may well be one of the largest and most significant cyclones that we've ever had to deal with."

Queensland has already suffered months of flooding since heavy rains began lashing the state in November. The floodwaters killed 35 people, damaged or destroyed 30,000 homes and businesses and left Brisbane, the country's third-largest city and the state capital, under water for days.

The federal government has estimated the cost of the damage is already at 5.6 billion Australian dollars ($5.6 billion) and likely to rise.

Hamilton Island, a popular tourist destination off Queensland, began evacuating some visitors on Monday, and other islands nearby were considering doing the same, Bligh said. Some nursing homes along the coast were also evacuating residents and officials urged people living in low-lying areas to consider leaving their homes until the storm has passed.

Deputy Police Commissioner Ian Stewart said residents should be prepared with flashlights, food and water.

"We ask people to take whatever action is necessary to protect themselves and their loved ones," Stewart said. "This is a very, very serious threat to the safety of our coastline and the safety of our community."