CAIRNS, Australia — 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.
In the city of Cairns, about 75 miles north of Mission Beach, dozens of guests at a waterfront hotel took cover in the central ballroom as lights flickered. Staff members pinned curtains shut over windows that were in danger of shattering and handed out flashlights.
Tourist Barbara Maskei, 49, of Germany, lay on the ballroom floor under a sheet reading a book, as her 20-year-old daughter, Annette, and husband, Peter, dozed beside her. For her, there would be no sleep. "I like to keep my eyes open," she said as the wind roared outside.
Staff attempted to distract people from the storm roaring outside by playing the movie "Music and Lyrics" on a giant screen. Some people attempted to sleep through the noise of the movie, wailing children and loud conversations about everything from cricket to the storm.
In Innisfail, a town about 55 miles south of Cairns that is nearly in the direct path of the storm, Mayor Bill Shannon said he saw the roof torn off a building near the local government building where some 500 people are sheltering.
"We're just hoping and praying we can all get through the night," Shannon said.
In nearby Tully, resident Ross Sorbello described feeling his house shake from the wind.
"The wind and rain outside are howling; it's a horrible sound," he said.
Storm surges of at least 6.5 feet were likely and would almost certainly flood some coastal communities, the Bureau of Meteorology said, adding that up to 28 inche of rain could fall within hours in some areas.
At highest risk was an area about 150 miles long between Cairns and the sugar cane-growing town of Ingham, the bureau said. The storm was forecast to continue inland at cyclone strength for two days, though gradually weakening. It was unclear what the damage to the Great Barrier Reef would be, experts said.
State disaster coordinator Ian Stewart said just one emergency call had been received — from six people in their 60s who feared their apartment in the resort town of Port Hinchinbrook would be swamped by the storm surge. They were told it was too dangerous for emergency workers to try to reach them and they would have to wait it out, Stewart said.
Winds knocked out power to about 90,000 homes, a number expected to rise.
Still, many in the storm's path were stoic. Cairns resident Jane Alcorn banned those who planned to shelter with her in the garage of her apartment complex from panicking.
"There's no crying, no hysterics," said Alcorn, 42. "It's going to be loud, it's going to be scary. But we've got each other."
Queensland officials warned people for days to stock up on bottled water and food, and to board or tape up their windows. People in low-lying or poorly protected areas were told to move in with family or friends on safer ground or go to evacuation centers.
"It's such a big storm — it's a monster, killer storm," Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said, adding that the only previous storm measured in the state at such strength was in 1918. "This impact is likely to be more life threatening than any experienced during recent generations."
More than 10,000 people took shelter in 20 evacuation centers, including one set up in a shopping mall in downtown Cairns, a city with a population of 165,000. People huddled in hallways with blankets, camping chairs and snacks.
On Wednesday, police told people to get off Cairns' streets. "Everyone's gotta go now," one officer told pedestrians strolling near the waterfront. "The water is coming NOW."
Warnings stretched as far away as Townsville, which is slightly larger than Cairns and about 190 miles to the south, and Mount Isa, about 500 miles inland.
People were told to move to rooms at the center of their houses — usually the bathroom — as they were structurally safest and usually had no windows. People should bring mattresses and other items to hide behind in case of flying debris, sturdy shoes and raincoats in case roofs are ripped off.
Carla Jenkins, 23, of Cairns, packed a suitcase, taped the windows of her house and fled to her grandmother's sturdier apartment complex with her sister and her dog, Elmo. The women had candles, flashlights, water and canned food and planned to spend the night huddled in a bathroom away from the windows.
"I can't see many Cairns people sleeping tonight," she said. "Tonight's going to be a very scary night."
Australia's huge, sparsely populated tropical north is battered each year 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.