updated 3/9/2007 11:33:24 AM ET 2007-03-09T16:33:24

Cyclonic winds and lashing rain ripped across Australia's northwestern coast on Friday, tearing roofs from houses in remote towns and laying waste to at least one mining camp. Three people were believed killed, officials said.

Several isolated communities in the iron ore-rich Pilbara region were cut off by air and road, and communications were limited on Friday as Cyclone George swirled inland near the town of Port Hedland overnight, police and other officials said.

Transportable huts were blown over in at least one camp where workers were building a railway for ore-carrying trains about 66 miles south of Port Hedland, killing one woman and injuring at least 20 other people, police spokesman Ian Hasleby said.

Another person was killed at a nearby ranch, said police Sgt. Brian Cowie.

"This cyclone has caused great damage to communities in the far north of the state and the federal government is ready to provide reasonable additional help," Prime Minister John Howard said, offering cash payments along with sympathy to families of victims.

A rescue team reached the stricken camp later Friday and began evacuating the injured, said Julian Tapp, a spokesman for Fortescue Metals Group that was building the railway.

Western Australia state Premier Alan Carpenter said there were unconfirmed reports that a total of three people were killed in the storm.

Residents in the region were being warned to stay inside because the storm was still raging Friday, though it was weakening. Rescue workers were unable to immediately travel to the workers camp.

The cyclone was packing winds gusting up to 174 mph when it crossed the coast about two hours before midnight Thursday near Port Hedland, about 1,025 miles north of Perth, the state capital, the Bureau of Meteorology said.

The storm tore off roofs, mangled fences, felled trees and cut power and phone lines to at least three towns in the region, State Emergency Services manager Derek Jones said.

The full extent of the damage would not be known until later, he said.

"We'll have teams out and about as soon as we're mobile," he said. "At this stage we ask residents to stay inside until it's all clear."

Police inspector Phil Clews said officers had received reports that some people were trapped inside collapsed buildings.

"We have a number of injured people, some serious," he told reporters in Karratha, another town in the region.

On Thursday, authorities evacuated hundreds of people from the area and mining companies shut down their ports and offshore rigs along the coast as the cyclone approached.

Cyclones — called typhoons throughout much of Asia and hurricanes in the Western hemisphere — are large-scale rotating storms that generate high winds and typically form at sea before moving inland.

The tropical storms are common along Australia's northern and western coasts from November to April.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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