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Powerful cyclone hits Australia's Barrier Reef coast

SYDNEY -- A cyclone packing winds of up to 230 kilometers an hour hit Australia's Great Barrier Reef coast Friday night, officials said, as tens of thousands of people hunkered down amid warnings of devastation.

Cyclone Ita, while downgraded from a maximum level five to a weakening category four storm, still threatened fierce gales around Cooktown, some 1,600 kilometers from Brisbane.

Cyclone Ita made landfall at Cape Flattery and was 65 kilometers north of the coastal resort of Cooktown, and 230 kilometers north northwest of Cairns at about 9:00 p.m. (1100 GMT).

“(Ita) is crossing the coast near Cape Flattery with very destructive winds to 230 kilometers per hour near the core and gales extending out to 185 kilometers from the center,” the Bureau of Meteorology said.

The storm was moving at 12 kilometers per hour and was “expected to continue moving south-southwest overnight and gradually weaken.”

Nonetheless winds gusting in excess of 125 kilometers per hour were expected to develop between Cape Melville and Cooktown during the night and possibly as far south as Port Douglas during Saturday morning.

Gales may extend south to the city of Cairns during Saturday, the bureau said.

“It's still a destructive cyclone which has very strong winds,” Queensland Premier Campbell Newman said, adding some 9,000 people in Cooktown and to its north were “staring down quite a destructive cyclonic event.”

A total of 30,000 further south were urged to evacuate and a warning zone extended beyond Cooktown, a coastal community of 2,400 people, through the main transit hubs of Port Douglas and Cairns.

Newman warned that homes built prior to 1985 when new building regulations were enacted may not withstand the impact of the storm, and urged residents in the path of the menacing storm to head to local cyclone shelters.

“Anything over 80 kilometers (per hour) is dangerous,” Cook Shire mayor Peter Scott told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC).

“Anything over 80K will put a piece of tin through you and chop your head off, it will lift roofs off, it will make severe damage so the best place to be is staying inside,” he said.

Scott said that in the view of one senior police officer in the area, “the Cooktown you see today won't be here tomorrow.”

Tropical storms are common in northeast Australia. This one is stronger but not as widespread as the monster Cyclone Yasi system which tore through the region just over three years ago, ripping homes from their foundations and devastating crops.

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