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Cyclone hits northern Australia

By David Ariosto, CNN
updated 10:52 PM EST, Wed January 11, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Some 3,600 residents in the Port Hedland area were left without power Thursday
  • Cyclone hits northern Australian coast as Category 2 storm
  • Heidi has been downgraded to Category 1
  • Authorities have warned residents of a potentially "dangerous storm tide"

(CNN) -- Tropical Cyclone Heidi slammed into northwestern Australia as a Category 2 storm early Thursday morning, dousing the region with torrential rain as residents remained on "red alert" over reports of strong winds and flooding, officials said.

The storm system, which prompted several major ports and oil fields to shut down in anticipation of tidal surges, packed gales of up to 145 kilometers per hour (90 mph) as it headed inland, according to Neil Bennett, a spokesman for the country's Bureau of Meteorology.

It has since weakened to a Category 1 storm and continues to lose steam as it moves farther inland, Bennett said.

Several sea ports were shut down ahead of the storm, from Port Hedland -- a major iron ore exporting center -- down to the more southern terminals at Dampier, according to Steed Farrell, a spokesman for the Port Hedland Port Authority.

"It's in the hands of mother nature," he added.

The agency activated contingency plans, which removed all nonessential personnel from the ports and obliged major vessels to relocate.

Some 3,600 residents in the Port Hedland area were left without power Thursday after the storm rolled through, according to the region's electricity provider, Horizon Power.

The country's largest oil and gas firm, Woodside Petroleum, also closed operations in several offshore oil fields.

Oil production fields -- particularly the Cossack, Wanaea, Lambert and Hermes facilities -- were shut down on the North West Shelf region, said Daniel Cleary, a Woodside spokesman.

The Vincent oil field off the North West Cape region also stopped production, he said.

Rio Tinto, the world's second largest iron-ore producer, also stopped loading at the ports of Dampier and Cape Lambert, where more than 200 millions tons of iron ore are shipped out each year, said Karen Halbert, a company spokeswoman.

Authorities had warned residents around Port Hedland and in the northwestern areas near Wallal of a potentially "dangerous storm tide," with the possibility of flooding in low lying areas.

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