Cyclone hits Australian resort coast

SYDNEY: A tropical cyclone smashed into Australia's northeast coast on Sunday, bringing winds of up to 200 kilometres (124 miles) an hour which downed trees and ripped air-conditioning units from walls.

Cyclone Ului made landfall near Queensland's Whitsunday islands, a popular tourist destination on the Great Barrier Reef, damaging buildings, washing yachts ashore and cutting power to thousands of homes, officials said.

But there were no reports of deaths or serious injuries from the severe storm, Queensland state Premier Anna Bligh said.

"We are characterising it as a significant event with severe damage in some pockets, but not a catastrophic event," she said.

Officials were assessing the impact that Ului, which was downgraded after making landfall near the tourist town of Airlie Beach, had had on the region.

One resident of the inland town of Proserpine described the storm, which had been building off the coast for days, forcing the evacuation of residents and tourists from some low-lying islands, as "pretty wild."

"I live in a pretty rickety old house and she was jumping up and down on the stumps a bit -- I've got an avocado tree through my dog kennel," the caller told ABC radio.

The Bureau of Meteorology said the storm, since downgraded to a rain depression, was now below cyclone strength after weakening rapidly after hitting land.

"Damaging winds are no longer expected," the bureau said in a statement, adding that surf conditions would remain dangerous.

On Friday, a 19-year-old athlete competing in the Australian Surf Lifesaving Championships in Queensland died after he was knocked unconscious and disappeared in wild surf whipped up by the cyclone.

Tourist operators said the damage from the cyclone appeared minor at Airlie Beach, but the industry had been hit by the evacuations and cancelled bookings.

Hundreds of tourists and residents were last week evacuated from islands on the Great Barrier Reef thought to be in the cyclone's path, and dozens of popular tourist beaches were shut due to dangerous surf conditions.

"I think we've probably come out of it pretty well and I don't think the clean up will take long," said Tourism Whitsundays chief executive Peter O'Reilly.

Four years ago tropical Cyclone Larry made landfall near the Queensland town of Innisfail, causing millions of dollars in damage to homes, infrastructure and crops as winds gusted at up to 240 kilometres per hour.