Homes wrecked and reef damaged as cyclone lashes Australia

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A horrific cyclone ripped roofs off buildings across Australia's northeastern coast Monday, with winds up to 180 mph that kept emergency workers holed up inside despite pleas for help from terrified residents.

The storm also damaged part of the Great Barrier Reef, with experts saying it could be 20 years before it recovers.

Hundreds of tourists and thousands of residents were bunkered down inside resort hotels and homes as Tropical Cyclone Larry — one of Australia's strongest in decades — smashed into the coast about 60 miles south of Cairns.

There were no serious injuries among the dozen people initially reported hurt, reflecting the readiness of residents in the storm-prone region, local officials said.

The cyclone damaged more than half the buildings in the hardest-hit town of Innisfail, Queensland state leader Peter Beattie said.

"Some have been flattened, roofs have been taken off," Beattie told Macquarie Radio. "The property damage has been immense. Power lines are down and it will take days to replace them because of the damage," he added. "We haven't had a cyclone like this for decades, if we've ever had one like it before."

The cyclone was rated as a category five — the strongest — but downgraded by the Bureau of Meteorology on Monday to category three after crossing the coast.

On the Great Barrier Reef, the storm is likely to have left an underwater trail of devastation that could take 20 years to return to normal.

But the worst damage is limited to a fraction of the sprawling, Japan-sized reef network — and it's far from the places where nearly two million tourists a year gaze in awe at the coral's vibrant colors and fish life, an expert said.

In a previous storm in the area, underwater damage was concentrated around the cyclone's central "eye" — a zone of extremely low-pressure air.

"The intense part of the latest storm is somewhere in the region of 50 kilometers (30 miles) across," said David Wachenfeld, director of science at the government body that cares for the reef.

"The Great Barrier Reef is more than 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) long, so what you're looking at here is a narrow band of damage going through the middle of a very large area."

Last year Cyclone Ingrid hit the area and damaged a 100-mile-wide band of the reef.

"In the middle of that, the damage was very intense with almost every coral severely damaged or killed," Wachenfeld said.