CAIRNS, Australia — Authorities implored thousands of Australians to gather their loved ones Wednesday and flee a monster cyclone that strengthened overnight and threatened to produce hours of terrifying winds and torrential rain for the northeast.
Gusts up to 186 mph (300 kph) were expected when Cyclone Yasi strikes late Wednesday night as a fierce Category 5 storm — the most severe threat level. The storm front is more than 310 miles (500 kilometres) wide and Yasi is so strong, it could reach far inland before it significantly loses power.
Queensland Premier Anna Bligh urged people living in low-lying areas to get out quickly because roads and airports were within hours of closing.
“Do not bother to pack bags. Just grab each other and get to a place of safety. Remember that people are irreplaceable,” she said.
Yasi was forecast to hit land at about 10 p.m. Wednesday (7 a.m. EST, 1200 GMT), the Bureau of Meteorology said.
The timing, just after high tide, meant high storm surges of at least 6.5 feet (two meters) were likely to flood significant areas along the coast.
“Yasi … poses an extremely serious threat to life and property,” the bureau warned, adding that the storm is likely to be “more life-threatening than any experienced in recent generations.”
Bligh said residents in coastal areas should have left already as their region would undoubtedly flood. Those living further inland were told to “bunker down” in their homes and get ready for gale-force winds expected to hit within hours.
“We are facing a storm of catastrophic proportions in a highly populated area,” Bligh said. “What it all adds up to is a very frightening time. We’re looking at 24 hours of quite terrifying winds, torrential rain, likely loss of electricity and mobile phones. People really need to be preparing mentally if nothing else.”
The storm is expected to make landfall between Cairns — a city of about 164,000 people and a gateway for visitors to the Great Barrier Reef — and Innisfail, a rural community about 60 miles (100 kilometres) south, which was devastated by Cyclone Larry in 2006. Larry destroyed thousands of homes and banana and sugar cane plantations. No one was killed.
The Cairns airport closed Wednesday after extra morning flights left. Tourists fled beach resorts ranging from backpacker hostels to exclusive clubs, and military flights ferried the ill and elderly from hospitals to safety farther south. About 9,500 people had taken cover at evacuation centres by Wednesday afternoon, Bligh said.
Police began ordering people off the streets of Cairns early Wednesday morning. “Everyone’s gotta go now,” one officer told pedestrians strolling near the waterfront. “The water is coming NOW.”
Those who decided to weather the storm from their homes spent Wednesday morning taping up windows, stacking sandbags and trying to stay calm as the massive storm front edged closer.
“Just another day in paradise!” Andy Gates quipped as he strolled into a Cairns cafe packed with residents hurrying to grab breakfast before the winds forced them inside. The 50-year-old airport maintenance technician was planning to ride out the storm along with dozens of friends and family members at his home, a sturdy cinder block house that stands high on a hill.
Gates, like many Queenslanders, has lived through more than a few storms. But Yasi looked particularly ominous, he said.
“I normally don’t get worried, but this one is going to be huge,” he said. “I reckon there’s going to be a lot of fatalities. They’re all painting a pretty grim picture.”
Cairns residents Jane Alcorn and Alan Buckingham filled a basket with food and trash bags at a grocery store buzzing with locals picking up last-minute essentials Wednesday morning. The couple said the winds would likely tear the roof off their apartment complex, but still planned to take shelter in their garage with other tenants.
Buckingham, who is from the U.K. and has never experienced a cyclone before, admitted he was having some trouble keeping his nerves in check.
“Where do you run to?” asked Buckingham, 48. “You can’t run inland and outpace it. … You gotta sit it out.”
Alcorn, a 42-year-old veteran of Queensland storms, said she had already banned those sheltering with them from panicking during the storm.
“There’s no crying, no hysterics,” she said. “It’s going to be loud, it’s going to be scary. But we’ve got each other.”
Forecasters said up to three feet (one meter) of rain could fall on some coastal communities. Many parts of Queensland state are already saturated from months of flooding, though the worst floods hit areas hundreds of miles (kilometres) farther south of the towns in the immediate path of Yasi. Still, Bligh said residents up and down the coast needed to prepare.
“It’s such a big storm — it’s a monster, killer storm — that it’s not just about where this crosses the coast that is at risk,” Bligh said.
Queensland has been in the grip of one of Australia’s worst natural disasters for more than a month. Tropical deluges that began in November flooded an area greater than France and Germany combined, damaging or destroying some 30,000 homes and businesses and killing 35 people.
Large parts of Brisbane, Australia’s third-largest city, were inundated for days. The government says the total cost to Australia is at least $5.6 billion.
Brisbane is about 1,400 kilometres (870 miles) south of Cairns on Australia’s east coast.
Australia’s huge, sparsely populated tropical north is battered each year by about six cyclones — called typhoons throughout much of Asia and hurricanes in the Western hemisphere. Building codes that have been strengthened since Cyclone Tracy devastated the city of Darwin in 1974 have left the region generally well-prepared.
Bureau of Meteorology: http://www.bom.gov.au/cyclone/index.shtml