Cyclone Ilsa crosses coast, smashes wind speed record

Powerful Tropical Cyclone Ilsa has made landfall in Western Australia, slamming the coast before midnight Thursday with extreme winds and intense rain.

Ilsa hit the Pilbara region as a category five system, after gathering strength Thursday afternoon.

It was downgraded to a category four after crossing the coast and weakened further to a category three about 6.30am on Friday.

WA’s worst storm in a decade hit between De Grey and Pardoo Roadhouse, where the servo owner was hunkering down against the “big one”.

Before reaching land, Ilsa set a record for sustained wind speed over a recording station on Bedout Island, off the Pilbara coast.

Winds of 218km/h at the eye of the storm smashed a record set more than 15 years ago.

“Cyclone Ilsa has set a new preliminary Australian ten-minute sustained wind speed record of 218km/h at Bedout Island!” the WA weather bureau posted on Twitter.

“Cyclone George was the previous record holder with 194km/h back in 2007 at the very same location!”

After making landfall, the Bureau of Meteorology reported sustained winds near the centre of 170km/h, with extreme gusts up to 250 km/h near Pardoo Roadhouse at 2am Friday (AEDT).

Ilsa was expected to dump heavy to intense rain of up to 300 millimetres near the coast, with falls gradually decreasing as it tracked inland.

The destructive system was moving eastward from the impact zone at about 25km/hr.

It was forecast to maintain tropical cyclone intensity as it moved inland past Telfer, about 500 kilometres from the coast.

“Ilsa is then expected to weaken below tropical cyclone strength overnight Friday as it moves into southern parts of the Northern Territory.”

In the first news from the impact zone, the ABC reported that communities appeared to have escaped the “brunt” of the cyclone.

“Overnight we have received no calls for assistance. It appears the larger populated areas have escaped the damage,” said Superintendent Peter Sutton from WA’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services.

“Once we can get crews on the ground and helicopters into the air, when it is safe, we will move along the coast to check roads and other critical infrastructure to see the brunt of the impact.”

In the regional centre of Port Hedland, west of the storm’s centre, locals were sheltering indoors under a red alert until the threat passed.

Mayor Peter Carter said the town of about 16,000 was still locked down and he had been unable to assess the damage, but the winds sounded “like a freight train” as the cyclone passed during the night.

“I think that we were very, very lucky. At the last point, the cyclone moved further north from us,” he told ABC TV.

“We were spared in our community what could have been really bad.”

‘Too late to leave’

As the cyclone approached the coast, residents were warned it was “too late to leave” and ordered to bunker down.

A red alert was issued for people between between Bidyadanga and Port Hedland (not including Bidyadanga) and inland to Marble Bar and Nullagine.

Iron ore port and rail operations were suspended at Australia’s busiest and biggest port and ships sent away, as the powerful cyclone tracked closer to the regional centre of Port Hedland on Thursday.

Manager of the remote Pardoo roadhouse, Will Batth, said he was planning to stay and hunker down with a colleague once the storm hit.

“We haven’t had any as strong as this in many years. This is a big one,” he said.

“[But] there’s no point in worrying. I can’t stop it.”

Warrawagine cattle station manager Belinda Lethbridge said the situation was concerning but her team had prepared as much as they could and it was now down to luck.

“It is what is … We just have to wait it out now and see what happens,” she said.

“It should be okay.”

She said her family and staff would sit out the cyclone together and expected to be flooded in by swollen rivers after it passed.

Department of Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Darren Klemm said the weather system would have a significant impact on communities in the warning area.

“All the preparation work that’s gone into those remote Aboriginal communities, the mine sites and the town and the pastoral stations is really critical to make sure people are staying safe.”

Evacuation centres were opened in South Hedland, Newman, Marble Bar and Nullagine.

“If your plan is to leave your residence or place of work and go to an evacuation centre, you need to do that,” Mr Klemm said.

Workers and tourists at Eighty Mile Beach caravan park and nearby cattle stations have been evacuated, along with non-critical workers from mines sites across the region.

Production at Newcrest’s Telfer mine slowed as the site was evacuated to all but a skeleton crew, with the cyclone expected to track inland through the area on Friday.

Extra emergency workers, essential supplies and aircraft have been sent to the area.

Bureau of Meteorology spokesman Todd Smith said category five cyclones were “incredibly dangerous”.

“That is going to cause a heap of damage,” he said.

Mr Smith said any buildings not constructed to withstand the fierce storm would suffer extensive damage.

“Fortunately it looks like the system is going to cross in a relatively unpopulated part of the coast,” he said.

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