Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the deployment — the biggest military deployment at home in more than 30 years — would aid north Queensland’s recovery after the category five storm roared into the state Thursday.
“It’s a very big deployment,” she said.
Canberra mobilised 1,500 soldiers last month to help clean up after floods devastated the state capital Brisbane and surrounding areas, killing more than 30 people, the biggest deployment for a natural disaster since 1974.
The announcement came amid reports of looting following the storm, and following the first death linked to Yasi: a young man who suffocated on fumes from a generator running in an enclosed space.
The biggest storm to hit Australia in a century wrought huge damage to small coastal communities, cutting some of them off completely.
But while two men were reported missing, there were no confirmed deaths caused directly by Yasi.
Hundreds of rescuers were cutting their way through fallen trees, powerlines and wreckage to reach towns pummelled by the category five cyclone, while tens of thousands languished without power, water or communications.
“We do understand that many people in the highly-impacted areas are getting anxious about the level of support and contact they are able to have with emergency authorities,” state Emergency Services Minister Neil Roberts said.
“We just ask them to be patient…. There have been significant difficulties in terms of access,” he told reporters.
A ship carrying 2,700 tonnes of food and essential supplies arrived in the reopened port of Townsville to begin resupplying the stricken region.
Aerial photos revealed massive destruction in Cardwell, with splintered boats hurled on top of each other several blocks inland, entire city blocks reduced to mud and tarmac roadways fractured.
In nearby Tully Heads, some houses were completely washed away while only the debris-littered shells of others remained.
A sea of household items such as microwave ovens, fridges and pool tables, created an obstacle course for vehicles in the streets.
Most residents had fled their homes following mandatory evacuation orders, a move that appeared to have spared the region fatalities, but state Premier Anna Bligh warned that as rescuers searched the ruins, there could be “some sad news in the next couple of days”.
More than 150,000 people remained without power across the region south of the city of Cairns, the tourist gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, while thousands of others had no running water.
Residents who evacuated as the storm bore down were returning to their houses to see what damage had been done. Police said 11 people were arrested for what they termed “disgraceful” looting since Wednesday.
Very early tallies showed that at least 20 homes were destroyed in the area and at least 400 suffered major damage, officials said, adding the numbers would rise significantly.
Catastrophe risk modelling agency AIR Worldwide said that although damage caused by Yasi was “less than expected,” it could generate between Aus$350 million ($350 million) and Aus$1.5 billion in insurance claims.
Losses from Yasi could exceed those from Cyclone Larry, which ravaged the same area in 2006, causing around Aus$1.5 billion in damage to crops and property and Aus$540 in insured losses, it said.
Yasi could add 0.25 percentage points to inflation after savaging large parts of the nation’s sugar cane and banana crops, sending bananas and other produce prices skywards, Treasurer Wayne Swan said.
“Of course it hits your pocket, it hits at the checkout, no doubt about that, it makes life tougher for a lot of people,” he said.