Powerful cyclone to slam Western Australia ports

Satellite image of Tropical Cyclone Damien.

Tropical Cyclone Damien is on a collision course with the Pilbara coast in northwestern Australia, with two container ports in its path.

Damien formed on Thursday in warm waters off the state of Western Australia. It’s set to be the first severe tropical cyclone to make landfall in Australia this season.

The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) is forecasting a coastal landfall between the ports of Dampier and Hedland on Saturday.

Damien’s sustained winds were 65 mph at 1 p.m. EST Thursday, 2 a.m. Friday in Western Australia.The BOM is forecasting Damien to strengthen into a Category 4 cyclone just prior to landfall. That is the second-highest intensity possible, which means it could produce sustained winds of 99 to 123 mph (158 to 198 kph), with possible gusts up to 170 mph.

“There’s heavy rainfall associated with this system and also strong winds,” BOM spokesman Neil Bennett told ABC News on Thursday.

“The other problem as it approaches the coast is the abnormally high tides which could cause some serious flooding between Dampier and Wallal, and that does include Karratha and Port Hedland on Saturday.”

The Port of Dampier is one of the world’s largest bulk export ports, with more than 170 million tonnes of throughput in 2018-2019, according to its website. Iron ore accounts for 82% of Dampier’s exports, followed by liquefied natural gas (LNG), salt and other commodities. Only about 1,100 people live there, according to a 2016 census.

SONAR Vehicle Traffic and Points of Interest showing ship and port locations (left); Critical Events showing Tropical Cyclone Damien (right)

Port Hedland — about 115 miles east of Port Dampier — handles even more iron ore, exporting almost 520 million tonnes in 2017-2018. The town of Port Hedland’s population is around 14,000 people, according to a 2018 census.

Parts of the Pilbara coast are still recovering from the devastation caused by Cyclone Veronica, which peaked as a Category 5 system in March 2019 but did not make landfall.

It stalled near the coast for 24 hours, subjecting Port Hedland, Karratha and other, smaller communities to a prolonged period of gale-force winds and heavy rainfall. It then slowly steered west, parallel to the coast, causing widespread destruction. Properties in the Port Hedland area were cut off by floodwaters, and there were major disruptions to the mining and oil and gas industries.

“Because it was slow moving, hung in the area for a long time and moved parallel to the coast, it impacted a larger area of the coast,” Bennett said.

“Whereas with Damien it looks like it’s going to come ashore and there will be an area around it that will be immediately impacted, but it will be moving in an almost straight line down across the coast and then further to the south.”

Karratha State Emergency Service (SES) local manager Trevor Patton said sandbags were available for local community members from the depot on Balmoral Road, but bags were limited to 10 per person.

“Due to the influx of previous cyclones, we’re limiting that. Obviously we don’t have an endless supply, we just need people to bear that in mind,” Patton said. “They are for stopping water infiltration into your house, they’re not for any other purpose.”

Schools in the Pilbara region will be closed on Friday, and Karratha Airport will be closed an hour before a red alert is issued.

SES has issued a blue alert for people in or near Port Hedland to Mardie. This includes Port Hedland, Whim Creek, Point Samson, Wickham, Roebourne, Karratha, Dampier and Pannawonica. SES has urged people in those areas to prepare for cyclonic weather and organize an emergency kit including a first-aid kit, torch, portable radio, spare batteries, food and water.