Queensland devastated again as 'savage' storm brings 190mph winds

A cyclone believed to be the most powerful ever to strike Australia battered towns and tourist centres on the north Queensland coast, with winds of 186 mph ripping buildings apart and cutting power.

Queenslanders – already hit by record floods that have killed 35 people – had been warned to prepare themselves for the "scenes of devastation and heartbreak on an unprecedented scale," they were likely to encounter.

Cyclone Yasi – upgraded yesterday to a category-five storm, the most severe – made landfall near the small resort centre of Mission Beach shortly after midnight local time.

But it had announced itself hours earlier, bringing driving rain and howling winds that tore off roofs, picked up lorries and felled trees and power lines.

Tens of thousands of residents and tourists had fled as the storm barrelled towards shore, while others followed advice to bunker down in bathrooms, sheltering from flying debris behind mattresses. The state disaster co-ordinator, Ian Stewart, warned them to prepare for roofs lifting off, windows exploding and older buildings "collapsing like a house of cards".

Gusts of up to 186mph were detected, with readings taken by an offshore weather station which Yasi demolished as it passed. Meteorologists said that, in size and strength, it dwarfed Cyclone Tracy, which flattened the city of Darwin in 1974, killing 71 people. Ms Bligh described Yasi as "a monster, killer storm", and said people in the danger zone faced "a very terrifying 24 hours".

The tourist town of Cairns, about 50 miles north of Innisfail, was deserted yesterday, with shops closed and windows taped. The airport, which closed in the morning after the last fleeing holidaymakers caught flights out, was locked down and sandbagged. Other airports and ports in the area were also closed, and already overflowing evacuation centres were forced to turn people away.

Mr Stewart gave warning that residents would have to fend for themselves for up to 24 hours. Alan Buckingham, a Briton who lives in Cairns with his Australian partner, Jane Alcorn, planned to shelter in the garage of their apartment block.

He said he had never experienced a cyclone before. "Where do you run to?" he asked. "You can't run inland and outpace it. You've got to sit it out."

Last night, foreign backpackers – who converge on Cairns because it is the main gateway to the Great Barrier Reef – were trying to find their way to evacuation centres.

"We are terrified," said Marlim Flagar, from Sweden. "We have had almost no information and have never seen storms like this."

However, the anticipated 23ft storm surges have so far failed to materialise. Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said there had been no immediate reports of deaths. "What I'm very relieved about is that we have yet to hear any reports from any police or any other source of any serious injury or fatality," she said. She added that emergency workers were still assessing damage done by the storm , but that evacuation centres, where more than 10,000 people had sheltered across the state, had not reported structural damage.

One resident, Maria Cook, returned to check on her home on the outskirts of Innisfail after spending the night in an emergency shelter. "I'm going to have to use a chainsaw to cut past trees and to get back inside my house, but that's OK," she said.

Yasi – which according to satellite images yesterday covers an area bigger than Italy – was set to dump more than two feet of rain and to hammer north Queensland, including towns hundreds of miles inland, for up to three days.

"This is a cyclone of savagery and intensity," said the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. "This is probably the worst cyclone that our nation has ever seen."

The Australian military was yesterday readying supply ships with aircraft landing capabilities, to help with search-and-rescue operations once the storm has passed.

In Townsville, a major garrison town 220 miles south of Cairns, 4,000 soldiers had been placed on standby. Although Yasi struck to the north of flooded areas, Queensland's emergency services are stretched because of the continuing flood crisis.

About 10,000 people spent last night in evacuation centres, with tens of thousands more staying with family and friends. At least 100,000 homes had lost electricity by last night, and the mobile-phone network was expected to be cut.

Queensland has not suffered a category-five cyclone since 1918. A senior Bureau of Meteorology forecaster, Gordon Banks, said wind gusts of over 200mph were possible, "which is just horrific". Engineers said Yasi could even blow apart houses that were supposed to be cyclone-proof.

It is feared there may also be a serious impact on the Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest coral-reef system.