AYR, March 28 — Lashing rain and howling winds battered northeast Australia today as towns went into lockdown ahead of a “monster” cyclone making landfall, with thousands evacuated amid fears of damage and tidal surges.
Cyclone Debbie is expected to cross the Queensland state coast as a category four storm — on a scale of five — packing destructive wind gusts of up to 280 kmh (174 miles) near its wide core.
It was initially feared the tempest’s arrival would coincide with early morning high tides, causing severe flooding, but its march has slowed and it is now forecast to hit near the town of Bowen at midday (1000 in Malaysia).
Despite this the tidal surge — which could inundate low-lying homes — is still expected to be significant.
“We are in for a long, tough day,” said Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, who warned of structural damage and power outages.
“The intensity and ferocity of the winds is going to be gradually increasing. Everyone is bunkered down.”
The force of the cyclone was already being felt on outer islands popular with tourists, including the Whitsundays which were in lockdown.
A worker holed up on Hamilton Island, part of the Whitsundays said the noise was deafening.
“It’s just like freight trains coming through, left and right,” the worker, identified only as Charlie, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
“It’s a green carpet outside, the trees are just going wild.”
Chris O’Brien, from the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services, said reports of damage were filtering through.
“We’re getting some reports already of roofs starting to lift, including at some of our own facilities in the Whitsundays,” he told reporters.
“Whilst it’s getting rough out there in the conditions, particularly around the Bowen and Whitsundays areas, it’s going to get worse and could get really bad.
“We’re in for a long haul here,” he added. “We’re starting to see some damage but overall, our preparations have done what they can do to make sure that our community is kept safe.”
Largest ever evacuation
Residents across the area, who have sandbagged and boarded up homes, have been 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 Palaszczuk, who warned the storm would be “a monster”.
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.
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 and access to the Great Barrier Reef.
Another 2,000 in the coastal area of Bowen, which is set to bear the brunt of the impact, have also moved, officials 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.
In the small town of Ayr, close to where the cyclone is set to make landfall, the main shopping street was deserted with buildings boarded up as conditions deteriorated.
Local Eddie Woods said he was prepared but undeterred, having lost count of the number of cyclones he has lived through since the 1940s.
He said Yasi was one of the worst.
“Yasi had a big tail on it, and they never told us anything about that and it blew like hell,” he told AFP as he sheltered in a refuge with dozens of others. — AFP