Thousands of Australians abandoned their homes as a powerful cyclone bore down on coastal towns in Queensland on Monday, while others ignored authorities’ advice to evacuate with winds forecast to reach up to 300 km per hour (185 mph).
Cyclone Debbie is forecast to strengthen to a Category 4 storm before it makes landfall in the northeast state early on Tuesday, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology said.
State Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk warned it would be the most powerful storm to hit the country since Cyclone Yasi in 2011, which destroyed homes, shredded crops and devastated island resorts.
About 3,500 people left low-lying townships near Townsville, while authorities advised 2,000 more people in the town of Bowen to also leave, Palaszczuk said, adding that the “window of opportunity to leave is drastically closing” as weather worsens.
A Category 5 storm is the strongest on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity.
Townsville Airport was closed and airlines Qantas, Jetstar, Rex and Virgin Australia said they had cancelled several flights to and from the region scheduled for Monday and Tuesday.
Pictures showed residents who had stayed behind protecting homes and shops with sandbags and plywood boards.
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 storm late Monday morning was about 375 kilometers (230 miles) east of Townsville, a coastal city 90 kilometers (55 miles) north of Ayr.