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Australian coastal towns wind- and wave-battered


TULLY, Australia (AP) -- The most powerful storm in a century ripped across Australia's northeast coast early Thursday, blasting apart houses, laying waste to banana crops and leaving boats lying in the streets of wind- and wave-swept towns.

Authorities said they were surprised to learn at daybreak that no one had been reported killed by Cyclone Yasi, but cautioned that bad news could eventually emerge from communities still cut off after the overnight storm, which left several thousand people homeless.

Emergency services fanned out as to assess damage across a disaster zone stretching more than 190 miles (300 kilometers) in Queensland state, using chain saws to cut through debris blocking roads.

The main coastal highway was a slalom course of downed trees and power lines, surrounded by scenes of devastation: Roofs peeled back from houses, fields of sugar cane and banana shredded and flattened, once-green expanses stripped to brown soil.

Cyclone Yasi was moving inland and losing power Thursday. But drenching rains were still falling, adding woes to a state where Australia's worst flooding in decades has killed 35 people since late November.

Hundreds of thousands of people had spent the night huddled in evacuation centers or bunkered in their homes as the cyclone hit, packing howling winds gusting to 186 mph (300 kph) and causing tidal surges that swamped coastal areas.

At Tully, about 12 miles (20 kilometers) inland along the storm's path, the main street was littered with twisted pieces of metal that were once house roofs and jagged shards of glass from shattered shopfront windows. Queensland state Premier Anna Bligh said one in three houses in the town of 3,500 people either were demolished by the storm or had the roof ripped off.

Australia's huge, sparsely populated tropical north is battered annually by about six cyclones _ called typhoons throughout much of Asia and hurricanes in the Western hemisphere. Building codes have been strengthened since Cyclone Tracy devastated the city of Darwin in 1974, killing 71 in one of Australia's worst natural disasters.

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