Over 25 thousands of people including tourists were evacuated on Monday as northeast Australia braced for a “monster cyclone” packing destructive winds, with warnings of major structural damage and dangerous tidal surges. More than 100 schools have been closed, along with local ports.
Cyclone Debbie has been forming off the coast of Queensland state over recent days, the Bureau of Meteorology (BM) said, and is expected to make landfall as a category four storm – on a scale of five – after daybreak on Tuesday.
Residents, who have been sandbagging and boarding up homes, were told to prepare for the worst weather to pummel the state since Cyclone Yasi in 2011, which ripped houses from their foundations and devastated crops.
“This is probably the largest evacuation we’ve ever had to do,” said Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, adding that structural damage and power outages were likely.
Some 3,500 people have been evacuated between the towns of Home Hill and Proserpine, around 100 kilometres (62 miles) south of Townsville, a tourist hotspot used to access the Great Barrier Reef.
Another 2,000 in the coastal area of Bowen were also on the move, Palaszczuk said, with cyclone shelters available for those with nowhere else to go.
Up to 25,000 more in low-lying parts of Mackay were urged to head to higher ground amid fears the storm could cause a tidal surge up to 2.5 metres.
The ferocity of Debbie has been building and it was upgraded to a category four cyclone late Monday before making landfall, expected somewhere between Ayr and Mackay, with a warning that “it may intensify further”.
The meteorology bureau forecast pounding rain and wind gusts of up to 280 km/h near its centre.
“Storm surge is also a risk factor, and if the cyclone crosses the coast around high tide this will enhance these effects,” it said, adding that severe flash flooding was possible.