Australia Braces For Major Cyclone

Car passes debris on road as Tropical Cyclone Monica approaches, Nhulunbuy, Northern Territory, Australia, video still 2006/4/24 AP /APTN

Residents of the northern city of Darwin were preparing Monday for the onslaught of a severe tropical cyclone, forecast to be one of the worst-ever storms to hit Australia.

Fishermen were securing their boats and a uranium mine halted operations as Category 5 cyclone Monica, packing winds of up to 217 mph, hovered around 275 miles northeast of Darwin on Monday afternoon, lashing sparsely populated islands off Australia's Northern Territory, according to the national Bureau of Meteorology.

Senior forecaster Gordon Jackson said the storm was "quite possibly" the worst cyclone to hit Australia — more powerful than even Cyclone Tracy, which struck Darwin on Christmas Eve 1974, leveling the city and killing 65 people.

"It's definitely the most intense to hit the Northern Territory," Jackson said. "It's worse than Tracy because it's a category-five whereas Tracy was a category-four."

Since Cyclone Tracy hit, Darwin has been rebuilt with homes intended to be strong enough to survive severe cyclones.

The cyclone has been tracking along Australia's northern coast for several days, threatening a number of remote Aboriginal communities but causing no injuries or major damage. It first struck the northeastern coast of Queensland state last week as a category-three storm, but has since intensified to a level-five — the most powerful category.

The Bureau of Meteorology said the "very destructive core" of the cyclone was expected to hit the Northern Territory's remote Coburg Peninsula later Monday, and then weaken slightly as it moves toward the northern city of Darwin.

"Strong wind gusts are expected at Darwin by tomorrow morning and the cyclone is not showing any signs of weakening," said forecaster Andrew Tupper. "We're hoping as it hits the land it will lose some intensity, but there's no doubt a serious cyclone is on the way."

Television satellite images showed the eye of the massive storm system tracking directly toward the northern capital city, which has a population of around 100,000.

Darwin residents were being advised to secure their homes and stock up on supplies ahead of Monica's arrival.

Meanwhile, uranium miner Energy Resources of Australia shut down its operations Monday as a precautionary measure.

The company, which is majority owned by mining giant Rio Tinto, operates the Ranger uranium mine located 155 miles east of Darwin, which lies in the cyclone's path.

"As a precautionary measure, mining and processing operations will be progressively shut down from this afternoon to allow appropriate plant and mine protective measures to be taken and for employees and contractors to return to their families and homes," ERA said in a statement.

The storm has caused widespread flooding as it has tracked along Australia's northern coast over the past several days, but no major damage or injuries have been reported.

Monica comes just one month after category-five Cyclone Larry tore through the rural community of Innisfail, about 60 miles south of Cairns, destroying thousands of homes and devastating banana and sugar cane plantations.

Cyclones — called typhoons throughout much of Asia and hurricanes in the Western hemisphere — are large-scale rotating storms that generate high winds and typically form at sea before moving inland.

Cyclones are relatively common along Australia's remote northern from November to April.
  • Lloyd Vries

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