World

Thousands flee as powerful cyclone bears down on Queensland

TOWNSVILLE, AUSTRALIA Thousands of people, including tourists, were evacuated yesterday, as northeast Australia braced for a powerful cyclone packing destructive winds, with warnings of major structural damage and surging tides.

Cyclone Debbie has been forming off the coast of Queensland state over recent days, the Bureau of Meteorology said, and is expected to make landfall as a category-four storm - on a scale of five - after daybreak today.

Residents, who have been sandbagging and boarding up homes, were told to prepare for the worst storm to pummel the state since Cyclone Yasi in 2011, which ripped houses from their foundations and devastated crops.

"This is going to be a nasty cyclone," said Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, adding that structural damage and power outages were likely.

"These wind gusts are going to be absolutely huge and my primary concern is making sure that families are safe."

So far more than 3,500 people have been evacuated between the towns of Home Hill and Proserpine, around 100km south of Townsville, a tourist hotspot used to access the Great Barrier Reef.

Another 2,000 in the coastal town of Bowen were also on the move, Ms Palaszczuk said, with cyclone shelters available for those with nowhere else to go.

Thousands more in low-lying areas of Mackay were urged to head for higher ground amid fears the storm could cause a tidal surge up to 2.5 metres.

Debbie is currently a category three cyclone, but is expected to build to a four by the time it crosses land somewhere between Townsville and Proserpine, with wind gusts of up 280 kmh near the centre, the meteorology bureau said.

"Storm surge is also a risk factor and, if the cyclone crosses the coast around high tide, this will enhance these effects," it said.

Local ports and more than 100 schools have been closed.

Ms Palaszczuk pleaded with residents to do as emergency service personnel asked, amid reports some were refusing to leave, an appeal echoed by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

"If you have received an official evacuation order, you and your family must leave immediately," he said.

The federal government said it was ready to provide immediate assistance in the aftermath, with a disaster relief ship en route from Sydney and navy helicopters and planes on standby.

"We are ready and able to respond to this emergency in support of civilian emergency authorities and the residents of northeastern Queensland once the full impact of Debbie is known," said Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin. - AFP

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