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The BBC's Jessica Williams
"They're used to tropical storms in this part but this is different"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 15 December, 1999, 16:10 GMT
Cyclone John lashes Australia

Whim Creek Hotel The battered remains of Whim Creek Hotel

Northwestern Australia has been lashed by 260kmh winds from the most powerful cyclone ever to hit the country's shores.

There are fears that Cyclone John - which has already ripped up trees and wrecked homes across the region - could cost the country A$300m (US$190.4m).

But despite ravaging coastal towns, the cyclone was downgraded from a category 5 to a category 4 after moving across the coast early Wednesday morning.

Whickham Police station An officer inspects the damaged Whickham Police station
Powerful gusts cut off power to outlying towns and villages scattered across the red hills of Australia's cyclone-prone, Pilbara region.

Hundreds of residents were evacuated from their homes late on Tuesday, mostly in the town of Karratha.

But experts said the area was likely to have escaped major damage because the storm did not pass over any large communities.

Winds like 'freight train'

Cyclone John made landfall near the tiny community of Whim Creek, missing bigger coastal towns such as Karratha.

Bureau of Meteorology cyclone forecaster Bryan Boase, described John as "unequivocally" the most powerful cyclone ever recorded in Australia.

Peter and Ingrid Rengel survey the damage Peter and Ingrid Rengel peer from their cyclone shelter - a sea container
By midday, the storm was heading south-southeast at 13kmh and gradually losing power.

"As it moves inland, there is a considerable moderating of the winds," Mr Boase said.

Dangerous storm tides are expected to cause heavy flooding in sparsely populated, low-lying coastal regions, the State Emergency Services warned.

Kevin Richards, mayor of the Karratha area, which includes the town and its surrounding area, compared the strong, battering winds to "a never-ending freight train."

Roofs had been damaged, trees uprooted and power lines were down, he said, but townsfolk were bearing up well.

The Insurance Council of Australia said on Wednesday that the potential insured losses from the cyclone could be up to A$300 million, similar to the losses from Cyclone Vance.

Vance caused insured losses of A$303 million when it destroyed much of the small towns of Exmouth and Onslow, also on the coast of the state of Western Australia, earlier this year.

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22 Mar 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Cyclone Vance batters coast

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