BRISBANE - Planes were flipped and roofs ripped off when hail and powerful winds tore through Australia's east coast, leaving a damage bill of more than Aus$100 million (US$85 million) as the army helped clear up Friday.

The storm, which officials said was one of the worst seen in the country and the strongest to hit the city of Brisbane in three decades, rained hailstones the size of tennis balls on cars and buildings late Thursday, flooding streets and injuring 39 people. Gusts of up to 140kmh, as strong as a Category Two cyclone, also uprooted trees and brought down power lines. In one of the more dramatic scenes, at least four light planes were flipped over at Archerfield Airport, 11km from Brisbane's central business district. "It looks like the apocalypse," one resident of an apartment building that had its metal roof wrenched off by the storm and blown more than 100 metres told reporters.

Another Brisbane resident said the hailstones were travelling "like bullets".

"My daughter was crying. It was like a freight train coming straight at you, just like a roar, it was that loud," John Arthur told national radio. "The size of the hailstones were decimating everything in its path."

Queensland Premier Campbell Newman said it was the "biggest storm that has hit Brisbane since 1985" but was grateful no one was seriously hurt. "It was a terrible storm, but thankfully no one's been seriously injured or worse," he told ABC radio.

The tempest started as a routine storm south of Brisbane on Thursday afternoon and tracked north, encountering moist air from sea breezes that helped it develop into a supercell, the Bureau of Meteorology's Pradeep Singh told AFP.

"A supercell has a vortex - the air is spinning around it as it moves up. When that happens, it takes the moisture above the freezing level and keeps it there for a long time," the senior meteorologist said.

"Rain particles keep developing bigger and bigger into hail. And because the draft is so strong in supercells, they tend to stay for a long time up in the air and when they reach the right weight, they start dropping down."

Queensland's Transport Minister Scott Emerson said Brisbane had received an "extraordinary" battering, as the insurance bill rose sharply through the day.

The Insurance Council of Australia declared it a catastrophic weather event. A spokeswoman told AFP it had so far received 15,060 claims for insured losses of Aus$109.2 million.

Insurer Suncorp said it fielded some 1,000 home and 1,600 motor claims following the storm.

At least 500 power lines were down on Friday and tens of thousands of homes and businesses remained without electricity as crews worked to restore the network.

Dozens of schools were closed, while hundreds of soldiers from the military's Emergency Support Force helped remove trees and debris from Brisbane's roads.

Queensland has been hit by several major storms and cyclones over the past two years.

Tropical cyclone Oswald, which flooded parts of the state in 2013 and racked up claims of some Aus$977 million, was one of the worst.