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Written by: Staff
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INNISFAIL, Australia, Mar 22: Thousands of Australians on the cyclone-devastated far northeast coast patched up homes with tarpaulin today as Prime Minister John Howard unveiled a multi-million dollar aid package.

The damage bill from Cyclone Larry, which did not claim any lives when it hit on Monday but ripped roofs off homes, decimated sugar and banana crops and uprooted trees, has been reported by local media at up to A$1.5 billion ($1.1 billion).

Bottled water, ready-made meals, generators, toilets and an army field kitchen have been delivered to towns and communities along a 300 km (186 mile) stretch of coast south of the tourist centre of Cairns.

''I have been through five cyclones and this is the worst I have ever seen,'' said retired farmer Sam Coco, who has lived in Innisfail town for the past 56 years.

In nearby Babinda, which has a population of about 1,200, emergency services said 80 percent of buildings had been damaged, while in Innisfail -- which took a direct hit from Larry and is home to 8,500 people -- half the homes had been structurally damaged.

Emergency services said running water was due to be restored in Innisfail by Wednesday night, but power would take longer.

''(Cyclone Larry) has made me unselfish,'' Jody Haendel, who lives in Babinda, told Reuters. ''My home came out okay, but my parents house was destroyed. All their possessions were ruined.'' Howard toured the area on Wednesday to inspect the devastation after winds topping 290 kph (180 mph) destroyed homes and livelihoods, and unveiled a A$100 million relief package.

''This is a fortunate country and when some of our own are down on their luck, they deserve a helping hand and that is basically what we are going to try and do,'' Howard said.

The package centres on helping farmers and small businesses, described by Howard as the lifeblood of the affected communities, with tax-free grants of A$10,000, unemployment benefits for six months and access to concessional loans of up to A$200,000.

CROPS DECIMATED

Cyclone Larry's winds were stronger than Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed the US city of New Orleans when it hit on August. 29 with winds of 209 kph.

In Innisfail, a free barbecue has been set up in the main street and long queues were forming at petrol stations and supermarkets.

Larry, a maximum category five cyclone, also devastated sugar cane and banana crops, with industry groups expecting raw sugar production for the world's third-largest exporter to be cut by 500,000 tonnes, or 10 per cent. About 90 per cent of Australia's banana production is believed to have been wiped out.

Banana grower and father-of-three Martin Buchanan lost all the crop on his 250 acre property.

''My house and my family are fine but my living is totally destroyed,'' Buchanan told Reuters. ''We are all wondering what we are going to do.'' The banana industry has said its losses could reach A$250 million, while sugarcane growers have said their losses could top A$200 million.

The Australian newspaper reported that A$300 million in insurance claims had already been lodged, A$15 million worth of avocado crops had been wiped out and that repairing roads and infrastructure in the area could cost up to A$600 million.

Another storm, Cyclone Wati, is a category three and intensifying about 800 km east of Cairns, but Australia's Tropical Cyclone Warning Centre said it would stay offshore until the end of the week.

Larry was similar in size to Cyclone Tracy, which killed 71 people in the northern city of Darwin in 1974 and caused insured losses of A$837 million (602 million dollars) in today's dollars, the third largest insured loss from a natural disaster in Australia.

REUTERS

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