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Cyclone threatens Australian west coast, forces towns to shut down

AFP

Towns and iron ore operations have been forced into lockdown as Cyclone Christine is set to make landfall in parts of Western Australia on Monday.

The three biggest ports in Australia, including Port Hedland, that account for almost all of the country's exports of the raw material, were closed to shipping due to the intensifying Tropical Cyclone Christine. (Reuters)

A powerful cyclone packing expected winds of more than 200km an hour was threatening Australia's west coast on Monday, forcing towns into lockdown and shutting iron ore operations.

A red alert was issued for Port Hedland and South Hedland on Western Australia state's resource-rich but sparsely populated Pilbara coast as the category three cyclone intensified offshore, forcing residents to batten down.

"This is a powerful system," said Neil Bennett, a spokesperson for the Cyclone Warning Centre in Perth, adding that winds were already building around Port Hedland to about 70km an hour.

"Right around the eye [of the storm] we could see gusts of 200km or more."

Cyclone Christine is set to make landfall between Karratha and Port Hedland at about midnight on Monday (1300 GMT) and authorities are warning of damaging storm surges, particularly if it hits at high tide.

"Rapid and powerful flooding is likely as Severe Tropical Cyclone Christine approached the coast," the Western Australian department of fire and emergency services said in an alert.

"Tides may rise significantly above the normal high tide mark with damaging waves and very dangerous coastal inundation."

'It's looking very ominous'
Residents under the red alert are already seeking shelter, and have been ordered to remain indoors and shut off gas, water and electricity.

"It's looking very ominous, certainly it's been very grey, we have been experiencing an increase in winds, we have been getting some strong gusts and we have been getting a little bit of rain," Port Hedland mayor Kelly Howlett told the ABC.

"We know we are expecting more and I guess that's what we are all bracing for and being prepared for."

Global miner BHP Billiton said its port and rail operations in Port Hedland had been suspended, with tie-down activities completed.

"All personnel have safely left site," it said.

Bennett said he did not expect the cyclone to become more extreme and develop into a category 4 or 5 – the highest rating – but said it could still cause significant damage, and would continue well inland on Tuesday.

The north-west of Western Australia has the highest tropical cyclone risk in Australia, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

On average, two cyclones affect Western Australia each year. – AFP

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