Thousands of Australians fled their homes for safer ground on Monday as powerful Cyclone Debbie bore down on coastal towns in Queensland, packing destructive winds, with warnings of major structural damage and dangerous tidal surges.
Authorities urged 30,000 people to evacuate low lying areas most at risk from the surges and winds of up to 300 km per hour (185 mph).
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 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 kilometers (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.
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 280 kmh (174 miles) near its center.
More than 100 schools have been closed, along with local ports.
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.
But some were adamant they were staying, with Mike Kennedy saying he believed many in the small community of Cungulla planned to remain.
“This is our block of dirt and we’re going to defend it from the storm if we can,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Police blamed the wild weather associated with the storm for a traffic accident in which a 31-year-old female tourist died. Police did not give the woman’s nationality.
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 defense force chief Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin.
Townsville Airport was closed and airlines Qantas, Jetstar, Rex and Virgin Australia said they had canceled several flights to and from the region scheduled for Monday and Tuesday.
Queensland produces some 95 percent of Australian bananas and while Cyclone Debbie is on course to miss the largest growing regions in the state’s far north, analysts said heavy rains and strong winds could cause significant crop damage.
The cyclone is expected to miss most of region’s coal mines, weather and mining data in Thomson Reuters Eikon shows, and no major dry-bulk vessels are in storm’s path.