updated 1/5/2007 8:18:55 AM ET 2007-01-05T13:18:55

A large storm front battering Australia’s southwest continued to disrupt mining operations on Friday, as flooding swept local communities.

Gale winds and heavy rains, caused by the tail of a tropical cyclone linking up with a powerful Southern Ocean storm, hit the southern coast of Western Australia overnight, causing flood damage to the town of Esperance and surrounding region.

Described by authorities as a “once in a generation” storm, the front was easing on Friday after dumping 220 millimeters of rain, but fallen trees and flooding closed many roads.

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology said the front would start to weaken as it moved south, away from the coast.

“I would think that by the latter parts of the morning the warning should be lifted from the southeast coastal area,” spokesman Gary Boterhoven told local radio.

BHP Billiton’s workforce at its Ravensthorpe nickel project, scheduled to go into service in 2008, remained at token levels, while mining operations at the Mt. Keith and Leinster nickel mines were closed until the ground dried out.

“Given the rain it’s not safe for us to operate at the moment,” BHP spokeswoman Emma Meade said, adding that the company’s concentrators continued to run.

“It’s just really the mining side that’s been impacted due to safety reasons,” she said. Large trucks and mining machinery were unable to operate on the drenched ground.

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