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Residents seek shelter as Rusty gathers strength

Wednesday February 27, 2013 - 18:10 EDT
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Port Hedland Primary School children sandbag a classroom ahead of the expected arrival of Tropical Cyclone Rusty. - ABC

Tropical Cyclone Rusty has picked up speed and is tracking towards Western Australia's Pilbara as locals take shelter and mining sites ground to a halt ahead of its expected landfall.

The giant category four storm is about 125km north-north-east of Port Hedland and gathering strength, with winds near its eye gusting to more than 200 kilometres per hour.

The Department of Fire and Emergency Services' Les Hayter says Rusty's speed has picked up to about 8 kilometres an hour.

"It's not sitting still. It's decided to make a move and it's making it reasonably quick," he said.

The mining town of Port Hedland is expected to escape the worst of Rusty, with the system now expected to hit near the tiny Pilbara community of Pardoo, about 120 kilometres east of Port Hedland.

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Ian Badger at Pardoo Roadhouse says winds are strong and the rain is steady.

"I've got some leaking in the roof and I've got water coming in through," he said.

"As long as the building holds together I'll be alright."

Mr Badger says besides himself, two men are seeking refuge in their truck cabin at the roadhouse.

He says he is well prepared but the amount of rain hitting the region in the past few days is a concern.

"It's just a matter of hanging on. The amount of water that's around is a bit worrying," he said.

"The ground is very sodden, very soft. As soon as you get a get a bit of strong wind, trees start going over."

This morning the storm was around 200 kilometres across, with the eye of the storm 65km in diameter.

Forecasters say Rusty will dump up to 600 millimetres of rain in a 24-hour period, with very destructive winds in excess of 160kph expected to hit as it approaches the coast.

Port Hedland has already recorded wind gusts of up to 120kph and a red alert is in place for communities between Pardoo and Whim Creek, including Port Hedland and South Hedland.

Residents in the red alert area have been told to take shelter.

Emergency authorities are warning residents are in for a prolonged period of lockdown as the slow-moving system heads across the coast.

"Unfortunately it's not typical of the cyclones we get up here, that take about 12 hours to cross, and we say goodbye to that one, and focus on the next one," Mr Hayter said.

"I really feel sorry for the people in red alert mode at the moment. This is going to be for a very long period of time."



The Bureau of Meteorology's Neil Bennett warns that the system is expected to pack a punch.

"These are severe tropical cyclones. These are very, very powerful systems and even though many residents in the Pilbara have been through a number of tropical cyclones, they still bring with them an element of risk and they just can't be underestimated," he said.

"We're expecting that during [today] we could see wind gusts in excess of 160kph," he said.

"[This] evening, we could see some gusts getting up to nearly 250kph."

Bureau regional director Mike Bergin says Port Hedland will experience the equivalent of Perth's entire winter rainfall in just three days.

"It's going to be a long, protracted and quite dangerous experience," he said.



Port Hedland evacuation centres have been set up in Andrew McLaughlin Community Centre in Keesing Street and Wanangkura Recreation Centre in Hamilton Road.

Emergency authorities say the South Hedland stadium, which is also being used as an evacuation centre, is at capacity.

Sarah Hoogenboom, from the Department for Child Protection, says it was a noisy night for those who slept in Port Hedland's evacuation centres.

"Lots of wind, we have lost a windscreen but obviously that didn't cause harm to anyone or anything like that so the building is holding up quite well," she said.

"Lots of noise, lots of rain and lots of wind and the intensity of it doesn't seem to drop off."

One resident, Steve Brooks says he could hear the storm picking up pace overnight.

"You could hear things picking up, a howling noise and there were a lot more noises like bits of tin from the shed starting to lift off a bit," he said.

"It's quietened down a bit now but I'm sure it'll pick up again before long."

Eight schools in Hedland are closed until further notice, including Hedland Senior High School and Port and South Hedland primary schools.

The Yandeyarra Remote Community School and Marble Bar and Nullagine primary schools have been closed due to a risk of flooding.



Workers have also been evacuated from mining camps and rigs across the Pilbara.

One worker, called Shane, told the ABC that a fleet of charter planes was used to clear out his fly-in, fly-out camp near Tom Price.

"We got all the night shift guys off last night on charter flights out of here and I was in the office until about 10 [o'clock] last night trying to organise flights to get everyone home," he said.

"We're supposed to be on R and R from Friday [and we've] got an extra two days off, so can't complain about that."

Mining giants Fortescue Metals and Atlas Iron have both locked down all operations in Port Hedland, with all work suspended.

The Port handles a fifth of all the world's sea-borne iron ore, and the cyclone has halted the loading of millions of tonnes of the commodity.

Rio Tinto says it has stopped ship loading at nearby Dampier and Cape Lambert, but all other operations including rail and stockpiling are continuing.



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