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Powerful cyclone strikes Australia’s northeast

CAIRNS, Australia (AP) — A massive cyclone crashed into northeastern Australia on Thursday, ripping roofs from buildings and cutting power to thousands of homes but leaving the scale of disaster unknown as officials and residents holed up while the tempest raged.

The Bureau of Meteorology said the destructive core of Cyclone Yasi hit the coast a few minutes after midnight at the small resort town of Mission Beach in Queensland state. Dozens of other cities and towns in the region — known to tourists worldwide as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef — were being battered by heavy rain and winds forecasters said could reach gusts of 186 mph.

Witnesses reported seeing roofs ripped off, buildings shaking and trees flattened under the power of the winds. Officials said the storm would cause the sea to surge inland and flood some places to roof level.

The storm will compound misery in Queensland, which has already been hit by months of flooding that killed 35 people and inundated hundreds of communities. The storm struck an area north of the flood zone, but the weather bureau said it would bring drenching rains that could cause floods in new parts of the state.

More than 10,000 people fled to some 20 evacuation centers set up in a danger zone stretching some 190 miles, amid strong warnings in the past two days. Many others moved in with family or friends in safer locations. Still, authorities were preparing for devastation, and likely deaths.

The storm’s front was about 300 miles across, and the worst of the winds were expected to lash the coast for up to four hours, although blustery conditions and heavy rain could last for 24 hours.

“This is a cyclone of savagery and intensity,” Prime Minister Julia Gillard said in a nationally televised news conference as the storm moved toward the coast. “People are facing some really dreadful hours in front of them.”

The damage would not be known until first light, officials said.

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