Queensland rescuers fight through Cyclone Yasi debris

The category five cyclone – the most severe level – shattered communities along Queensland’s north-east coast Thousands of Australian soldiers, police and emergency workers have been sent to help Queensland’s stricken coastal communities, left reeling by the state’s worst storm in a century. Emergency teams are cutting through the debris to reach towns still isolated after Cyclone Yasi hit on Wednesday.

Police have confirmed the first fatality; a 23-year-old man. Heavy rains and flash floods are said to be hampering rescue efforts. Power is still out for 150,000 homes. The category five cyclone – the most severe level – has shattered communities along Queensland’s north-east coast. “It’s a war zone,” said Deputy Prime Minister Wayne Swan, after a 30-minute tour of the town of Tully. Officials described as a “tragic loss of life”, the death of a young man suffocated by fumes from a generator he was running in a closed room as he sheltered from the storm. State Premier Anna Bligh said there could be “some sad news in the next couple of days” as rescue work progressed. But she said that given the scale of the devastation there had not been a “mass loss of life” which she described as “a great relief”.

Appeal for calm: Some 4,000 soldiers and 600 police and emergency workers are at work in the state. A ship carrying nearly 3,000 tons of food and essential supplies has arrived in Townsville. Some 7,000 people remain in evacuation centres and thousands more are living in their battered homes without power or water supplies. Communication links have yet to be restored to many areas. Officials have appealed for calm while rescuers try to reach residents. The towns of Mission Beach and Cardwell are still cut off; Cardwell suffered flooding after taking the full brunt of the storm. Aerial images show city blocks in Cardwell reduced to mud, and boats thrown inland and stacked on top of each other.

“We do understand that many people in the highly-impacted areas are getting anxious about the level of support and contact they are able to have with emergency authorities,” Emergency Services Minister Neil Roberts said. “We just ask them to be patient. But there have been significant difficulties in terms of access. Roads are cut… there is heavy debris on many,” he said. A sea of household items such as microwave ovens and fridges have created an obstacle course for vehicles in the streets, reports say. Queensland Fire and Rescue Service officials said workers equipped with chainsaws were cutting their way through the debris into areas.

Residents in Cardwell have told reporters they feel numb and scared after the week of turmoil. The storm compounds Queensland’s misery, coming on the heels of devastating floods that have claimed 35 lives and destroyed hundreds of homes since December. “A lot of us feel like we’re on our own again,” said Lisa Smith, a resident in Cardwell whose house has lost half its roof.

“I just hope we don’t get forgotten.” Prime Minister Julia Gillard has said the cyclone damage would be “massive” but that it was too early to quantify. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been lost in banana and sugar cane plantations but it is still too early for a full disaster assessment. Raw sugar exports from Australia – usually the world’s third largest exporter behind Brazil and Thailand – are expected to fall more than 20%. Treasurer Wayne Swan said the cyclone would add about a quarter of a percentage point to inflation – BBC