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Australian rescuers battle to reach cyclone towns

Australia, Feb 4 – Australian rescuers cut their way through to towns splintered by a monster cyclone, as officials urged people stranded by the storm to stay calm until help arrives.

Authorities on Friday announced the first death linked to top-strength Cyclone Yasi, which roared into Queensland state Thursday: a young man who suffocated on fumes from a generator running in an enclosed space.

"This is a tragic loss of life and again our condolences go to that young man\’s family and friends," Queensland State Emergency Services Minister Neil Roberts said, urging people without power to ventilate if using generators.

The biggest storm to hit Australia in a century wrought huge damage to small coastal communities, cutting some of them off completely. But while two men were reported missing, there were no confirmed deaths caused directly by Yasi.

Hundreds of rescuers were battling their way through fallen trees, powerlines and wreckage to get to towns pummelled by the category five cyclone, while tens of thousands languished without power, water or communications.

Officials appealed to those stranded to be patient as rescuers and workers tried to reach them and restore essential services.

"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," Roberts told reporters.

"We just ask them to be patient," he said, adding that large teams of emergency workers were moving into the stricken area between Mission Beach and Cardwell, which bore the brunt of the storm.

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"But there have been significant difficulties in terms of access. Roads are cut… there is heavy debris on many," Roberts said.

Towns such as Mission Beach and Cardwell were proving especially tough to get to because they are besieged by floodwaters from tidal surges as well as piles of debris.

 Rescuers had to hack their way through the wreckage, as their colleagues took to helicopters to assess the extent of damage.

"Our guys are equipped with chain saws and they physically cut their way and clear the road as they make their way in," said Peter Dawson of the Queensland Fire and Rescue Service.

Aerial photos revealed massive destruction in Cardwell, with splintered boats hurled on top of each other several blocks inland, entire city blocks reduced to mud and tarmac roadways fractured.

Most residents of the battered area had fled their homes following mandatory evacuation orders, a move that appeared to have spared the region fatalities.

"What we know is we didn\’t see a mass loss of life in evacuation centres so that\’s a great relief," state Premier Anna Bligh said.

But she warned that as rescuers searched and cleaned up the ruins of buildings, there could be "some sad news in the next couple of days".

More than 150,000 people remained without power across the region south of the city of Cairns, the tourist gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, while thousands of others had no running water.

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Cairns residents who evacuated as the storm bore down on the city, before veering south at the last minute, were returning to their houses to see what damage had been done

Very early tallies showed that at least 20 homes were destroyed in the area and at least 400 suffered major damage, officials said, adding the numbers would rise significantly.

Catastrophe risk modelling agency AIR Worldwide said that although damage caused by Yasi was "less than expected," it could generate between Aus$350 million ($350 million) and Aus$1.5 billion in insurance claims.

"Losses from Yasi may well exceed those from Cyclone Larry in 2006," said AIR\’s Vineet Jain. Larry hit the same area as Yasi, causing around Aus$1.5 billion in damage to crops and property and Aus$540 in insured losses.

 Yasi was meanwhile fizzling out as a category one storm over central Queensland, which is still recovering from treacherous floods that last month killed more than 30 people and caused at least Aus$5 billion in damage.


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