Cyclone Veronica weakened overnight on Sunday to a category two system and conditions eased at Port Hedland, but destructive winds continue to batter Western Australia’s Pilbara coast.
The eye of the cyclone is tracking westward parallel to the coast, causing heavy rainfall and flooding between Karratha and Port Hedland, despite having earlier been expected to reach land.
Warnings have been lifted in Port Hedland and South Hedland, with residents cleared to leave their homes. Red alert warnings remain in place for communities west of Port Hedland to Mardie.
Department of Fire and Emergency Services spokesman Darragh Wills said the danger was not yet over.
“It is still a cyclone, and there is still the red alert in force,” he said.
“It is forecast to track west, so the impact will move along the coast along with that, although it is moving very slowly.
“If it moved more quickly the rain would go along with it, but it’s in the one spot more or less and the rain just keeps falling, so you’ll get all that rain in a smaller area.”
Power outages reported as help sent to Pilbara
Mr Wills said DFES had received no reports of injuries, but there had been isolated power outages and minor damage.
He, like everyone else in the region, had been inside during the night.
“People do need to stay inside. We will be assessing that in Port Hedland in the morning, and doing some damage assessments and so on to see if we can lift it, but at this stage is it still a red alert,” Mr Wills said.
“People will also need to be aware of their surroundings and be watchful of anything that might be a safety hazard.”
DFES has deployed extra staff to the region, including a taskforce from its statewide operational response division and an urban search and rescue taskforce.
Residents of Port Hedland and outlying communities have been on red alert since Saturday night, while a yellow alert is current for Barrow Island, Pannawonica and Mardi.
Many have been sheltering in evacuation centres set up in South Hedland and Karratha.
Veronica is likely to maintain cyclone intensity for much of Monday.
Tropical Cyclone Veronica is expected to weaken further as it tracks westwards close to the Pilbara coast today. Conditions have eased at Port Hedland. Communities between Mardi and Whim Creek will still experience gales today. #CycloneVeronica https://t.co/B1MVXBYXhh pic.twitter.com/lveQXJx7Tz
— Bureau of Meteorology, Western Australia (@BOM_WA) March 25, 2019
Cyclone heads for Karratha and Dampier
Bureau of Meteorology senior forecaster Matt Boterhoven said the cyclone was still packing strong winds.
“Currently near the centre we’re looking at mean winds of a 100km/h but gusts up to 14km/h,” he said.
“When it does track along the Pilbara coast this afternoon, evening, [it] could track very close to Karratha and Dampier so they could see some damaging winds develop.”
Mr Boterhoven said Veronica could cross the coast near Dampier, but said the conditions for it to maintain or increase in intensity were unfavourable.
“If you have a look at the satellite imagery you’ll see the upper level cloud has been sheared off the low-level centre,” he said.
Winds of up to 125km/h are likely to continue throughout the morning, and major flooding is expected along the Pilbara coast and adjacent inland areas.
A dangerous storm tide with damaging waves and coastal inundation are forecast east of Karratha early this afternoon, prompting a warning from DFES that properties in Port Hedland are at risk of inundation.
Schools in the region were closed on Monday, including those in Port Hedland, South Hedland, Karratha, Marble Bar, Roebourne, Wickham and Dampier.
Some roads are also closed, including a large stretch of the North West Coastal Highway.
The upper level cloud of Tropical #CycloneVeronica is significantly displaced from the low level centre. This is known as the system being 'sheared'. TC Veronica will continue to weaken near the Pilbara coast during today. Latest cyclone info https://t.co/L0mHbEKftg pic.twitter.com/lh1m82Y5ih
— Bureau of Meteorology, Western Australia (@BOM_WA) March 24, 2019
Economic blow could exceed $1 billion
Ports are also closed, including at Port Hedland, the biggest iron ore exporter in the world.
Analyst Phillip Kirchlechner has warned the cyclone could cost the nation’s economy more than $1 billion.
“Based on iron ore exports out of Australia in recent years, which range from roughly $US60 billion to $US70 billion a year, if [shutdowns last] about a week and there’s no catching up of lost production later, then the impact would be around $US1-1.3 billion,” he said.
Mr Kirchlechner said that cost could be greater if the cyclone caused damage to mining infrastructure, further delaying a resumption of exports.
The Pilbara Ports Authority is uncertain when it will reopen its facilities. They have been closed for three days.
BHP said in a statement initial inspections had shown water damage to some buildings at its Nelson Point rail and port facilities in Port Hedland.
It said it was “currently working through this situation”, which could impact on employees returning to work.
Babies born in cyclone
At least five babies have been born in affected communities during the cyclone, including baby Wynter, who was delivered at Karratha Health Campus early on Sunday.
Parents Danielle Boyle and Ryley Drummond thanked hospital staff for their efforts during the cyclone.
“Although the winds and rains were picking up outside, things couldn’t have been calmer or more relaxing in the hospital,” they said.
“Wynter made her arrival into a peaceful atmosphere thanks to the wonderful staff and support at Karratha Health Campus.
“We can’t thank you enough.”