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Heavy rain slows relief in cyclone-struck town

Strong rain on Wednesday slowed relief efforts in Australia, two days after the region was battered by Cyclone Larry, a Category 5 storm that destroyed buildings and crops and left thousands homeless.
Australian soldiers help clean up Innisfail on Tuesday after Cyclone Larry devastated the region.Rob Griffith / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Strong rain on Wednesday hampered relief efforts in northeastern Australia, two days after the region was battered by Cyclone Larry, a Category 5 storm that destroyed buildings and crops and left thousands homeless.

Before flying to the devastated region to see the destruction, Prime Minister John Howard pledged his administration would help.

"I will give a strong federal government response," he said.

Tropical downpours prevented equipment like generators reaching hardest-hit Innisfail, Queensland state Emergency Services Minister Pat Purcell told reporters in the town. Generators are essential to the cleanup because power still has not been restored to many areas lashed by Larry.

"A number of the roads are making it difficult to get our equipment through," he said.

The highway into Innisfail from the city of Townsville to the south was flooded in three different places and there also were fears that the highway heading north could be closed by flooding.

Yes, he’ll have no bananas
In Waugh Pocket outside Innisfail, banana farmer Wayne Hoy had to wade through thigh-deep floodwater churning around and under his house, which like many homes in the region is on stilts, to take two generators into town for repair.

"With the cyclone there was no flooding ... then we woke up this morning, and now this," he said looking at his house and 100 acres of flooded banana fields which were flattened by Larry and then flooded.

Purcell said it could be weeks before power is restored to remote regions.

"We're now in the recovery stage but we're being hampered by heavy rain," Inspector Bob Waters told television's Seven Network.

"Fifty percent of homes in the area have received some damage and about 20 to 30 percent have received major structural damage."

Hundreds of troops were working around Innisfail to restore power, water and sewerage systems as tropical downpours drenched the town.

'Looks like it's just been napalmed'
Reporters who flew Tuesday into Innisfail, about 1,200 miles north of Sydney, saw scenes of devastation — rain forest shredded by the winds, acres of sugar and banana plantations flattened, the trees and cane on the ground next to their stumps, pointing in the direction that the cyclone tore past.

“It looks like it’s just been napalmed,” said helicopter pilot Ian Harris. “That’s normally pristine rain forest.”

An apartment block with its roof torn off looked from the air like a doll’s house. A resident was inside picking through the wreckage.

“I never expected anything like this,” said Rosarie Cullinane, a 24-year-old Irish backpacker who had been working at a local hostel. “I did hear about cyclones but I didn’t think it was going to be that bad.”

Devastation? Time for a barbecue
After Innisfail was torn apart the residents responded with a most Australian of gatherings: a barbie.

Butchers and restaurant owners in the town offered up their wares to survivors on Tuesday rather than see them rot in refrigerators warming quickly in the tropical heat. 

But by Wednesday morning, heavy rains had resumed, causing local flooding, preventing equipment like generators reaching Innisfail and drenching hundreds of troops sent to the area to restore power, water and sewerage systems.

More than 1,000 residents turned out at Tuesday’s barbecue to munch on donated lamb chops, steaks and sausages amid twisted metal roofing sheets and palms trees stripped bare.

“It’s looking after our home, isn’t it?” said Jeff Baines, one of the barbecue organizers, who wore a chef’s uniform as he cooked up dozens of sausages. “If we don’t look after our home who’s going to?”

Cleaning up slow but steady
Queensland state leader Premier Peter Beattie acknowledged that the cleanup effort was slow, but said significant aid already was reaching residents who lost everything Monday as 180 mph winds shredded their homes and businesses.

"We've got water into the community, we've got food into the community, we're fighting to restore all the services that are necessary," Beattie told Sky News.

"When you get a Category 5 cyclone, which belts the hell out of the community, you're not going to restore (services) in 30 seconds. That is going to take days and weeks," he added.

"There's going to be a lot of frustration, a lot of anger, a lot of pain, and we accept ... that will be part of the circumstances."

No deaths, but ‘everything is gone’
Nobody was killed by Larry and only a handful of minor injuries were reported after many residents boarded up homes and evacuated the region ahead of the storm.

But the human cost was still easy to see on the streets of Innisfail.

Bev Thomson, 46, wept in the arms of her partner Brian Comer outside the town hall where the couple ate their first hot meal since the storm destroyed their house and 40 acre (16 hectares) banana plantation.

"It's just flattened. Everything is gone," said Thomson. "We lost everything, that's why we're here, to try and get help."