CAIRNS, Australia – A massive cyclone struck northeastern Australia early today, tearing off roofs, toppling trees and cutting power to thousands, the most powerful storm to hit the area in nearly a century.

The eye of Cyclone Yasi roared ashore at the small resort town of Mission Beach in Queensland state, battering the coast known to tourists as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. It brought heavy rain and howling winds gusting to 186 mph.

Yasi compounded the suffering for Queensland, waterlogged by months of flooding that killed 35 people and inundated hundreds of communities. It struck an area north of the flood zone, but the Bureau of Meteorology said it would bring drenching rains that could cause floods in new parts of the state.

Witnesses reported roofs being ripped off, buildings shaking and trees flattened under the power of the winds. Officials said the storm surge would flood some places to roof level.

“This is a cyclone of savagery and intensity,” Prime Minister Julia Gillard said in a nationally televised news conference as the storm moved toward the coast. “People are facing some really dreadful hours in front of them.”

More than 10,000 people fled to 20 evacuation centers in a danger zone stretching 190 miles amid strong warnings in the past two days. Many others moved in with family or friends in safer locations. Still, authorities were preparing for devastation, and likely deaths.

The storm’s front was about 300 miles across, with the worst of the winds expected to lash the coast for up to four hours, although blustery conditions and heavy rain could last for a day.

“It’s such a big storm — it’s a monster, killer storm,” Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said, adding that the only previous cyclone measured in the state at such strength was in 1918. “This impact is likely to be more life threatening than any (in) recent generations.”

Australia’s huge, sparsely populated tropical north is battered annually by about six cyclones — called typhoons throughout much of Asia and hurricanes in the Western hemisphere.

Building codes have been strengthened since Cyclone Tracy devastated the city of Darwin in 1974, killing 71 in one of Australia’s worst natural disasters.