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Last Updated: Monday, 20 March 2006, 11:01 GMT
Cyclone batters Australian coast
Fallen trees near Cairns, Australia
Emergency workers were forced to stay away despite residents' pleas
A powerful tropical cyclone has hit Australia's north-east coast, packing winds of up to 290km/h (180mph).

Tropical Cyclone Larry smashed into Queensland at Innisfail, about 100km (62 miles) south of Cairns, making thousands homeless.

About a dozen people sustained minor injuries and up to 50,000 homes are without power.

A state of emergency has been declared and Prime Minister John Howard has pledged help for the affected areas.

"The damage to dwellings is very extensive," Mr Howard told Australia's Nine Network.

"Thank heavens it does not appear as though there have been any very serious injuries," he said.

It was like the sound of a steam train coming across the bay - it was terrifying
Innisfail resident Cherelle Skelly

He promised emergency relief aid for families made homeless by the cyclone and said he would visit the region.

Troops and helicopters are to be deployed to help clean up the cyclone-stricken area.

'Immense damage'

The coastal community of Innisfail, about 95km (60 miles) south of Cairns, was hardest-hit.

Queensland state leader Peter Beattie told local radio that buildings had been flattened and roofs taken off.

"The property damage has been immense," he said. "We haven't had a cyclone like this for decades, if we've ever had one like it before."

State emergency official Alan Green said "every second building" was damaged.

Map of northern Queensland

"Some have all their roofs gone, some have walls gone, awnings are gone out the front," he said.

Local Mayor, Neil Clarke, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that survivors would be housed in tents at the town's airport.

At the storm's height, police said they were unable to venture out to assist stricken residents.

"We just told them to wrap themselves in mattresses, blankets, whatever they can find and just stay put," said an Innisfail police official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"I don't think there will be a tree in Innisfail standing, or a power line. It's really phenomenal."

'Steam train'

Amanda Fitzpatrick, who owns a motel outside Innisfail, told local radio the storm was "terrifying".

"It's just like a bomb has gone off, like something went through and just bombed it," she said.

Another local resident, Cherelle Skelly, said her home was shaking.

"It was like the sound of a steam train coming across the bay - it was terrifying," she told Reuters news agency.

State Disaster Co-ordination Centre spokesman Peter Rekers said the danger might not be over.

"Most of the casualties and deaths resulting from cyclones happen after the storm has passed," he warned.

"Keep your kids away from flooded drains, be aware of snakes and crocodiles. Those guys will have had a bad night, too."

Television images showed damage to banana plantations, and a local official told Reuters he expected "fairly significant damage" to the sugar cane crop.

The area is an important centre for Australia's banana and sugar cane industries.

The storm was initially a category five - the strongest possible - but was downgraded to a category four shortly after it crossed the coastline.

Have you been affected by Cyclone Larry? Tell us about your experiences. You can send any footage or pictures you may have to yourpics@bbc.co.uk

It started off a bit windy for a few hours then all of a sudden it picked up like in an instant. The winds were really strong and small bits of debris were flying around. Before we knew it, Larry had upgraded to Category 5. Trees were uprooted and bending over. We were sure that our windows were going to smash as the force of the winds against them were increasing. There was also a lot of rain and it was scary. We had only got the side of Larry so imagine what Innisfail got. Our hearts go out to them. It's a miracle that no-one died.
Esther, Cairns, Australia

We stocked up and prepared for a family night in the bathroom. As it happened Townsville got of very lightly and captured much needed rain. I feel there is a sting in the tail with a Cyclone Wati developing! Our thoughts are with those poor people in Innisfail.
Adrian, Townsville Nth Qld, Australia

We're just a little bit north of the swirly bit, we had been cut off for three days lest week because of torrential rains and floods, now it's the other way around, we have many friends down that way that we haven't heard from as yet but we are assured that there have been no fatalities. The fact that all out services have to come through that region is a little alarming though, thankfully we still have power, unlike last week! But, cyclone Wati is following close behind so the next 72 hours could be interesting. Hey, as they say up here... "hey, you wanted to live in the tropics!"
John, Cooktown, Australia

Myself and a couple of friends are backpacking currently up the East coast of Australia, we are currently stuck on Magnetic island which is a few hundred kilometres south of Innisfail but all ferries were stopped yesterday meaning we have to stay here for a few more nights. Even though we are still quite far away the wind and rain was pretty dramatic last night. We spent yesterday evening packing all loose equipment from the hostel away and then sheltering in our dorms. It was quite dramatic.
Tom Perry, Ashford, Kent

We have been spared the worst. Until about 10pm last night we were expecting to be within the worst of the zones but a last minute shift moved the cyclone far enough north to only give us rain and gales. But our blessing has been the curse of others with awful pictures and stories coming through on ABC local radio of the sheer devastation. Yesterday was very surreal - the real calm before the storm, the intense preparation and then the watching and waiting foe something so unknown yet so inevitable. Very weird 24 hours. Now watching Cyclone Wati which seems to be following in the wake of Larry.
Kirsty McCullough, Townsville, Australia

I live in Trinity beach, 30k north of cairns. It's 2pm and people are starting to get outside to clean up their gardens. In the northern suburbs we got off lightly with only a few road signs and trees down. I drove into cairns to see my daughter and the roads through the botanic gardens are like an obstacle course, with big trees and broken power lines everywhere. I saw little structural damage other than car ports and fences but everybody's garden is deep in broken branches and leaves. We have been told it could be several days before full electricity supply is restored but all in all we seem, at least where I have been, to have got off lightly.
John Stevenson, Cairns Australia

Our flight was forced to turn back today after reports of a massive cyclone in the Cairns area. We are both now stranded in Brisbane awaiting more news of the opportunity to travel up there. As soon as we get there we should be able to email some pictures of "The most devastating cyclone in decades"
Robert White and James King, Banbury, England

My sister is staying in Cairns while travelling, she just rang to say that it is raining heavily and the roads are covered in water and it is extremely windy and there is debris flying around everywhere. You can hear the roof rattling on the phone and she says that rain is being driven in through the windows.
Dan Murphy, UK

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