Strong winds and driving rain have begun to buffet north-east Australia as one of the country’s biggest storms bore down while residents huddled in evacuation centres or hid at home in bathrooms behind piles of blankets and mattresses.
Officials issued dire warnings of potential devastation for cities and towns dotted along a stretch of coast more than 190 miles long in north Queensland state, in an area considered the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef.
The storm will compound misery in Queensland, which has already been hit by months of flooding that killed 35 people and inundated hundreds of communities.
Cyclone Yasi is due to hit north of the main waterlogged area, but emergency services are already stretched and the whole state is flood-weary.
“This is a cyclone of savagery and intensity,” prime minister Julia Gillard said in a nationally televised news conference. “People are facing some really dreadful hours in front of them.”
The first of Cyclone Yasi’s winds began howling throughout Cairns as night fell. Winds at the centre of the storm were gusting up to 186mph, and the front was about 300 miles across.
The worst winds were expected to last up to four hours, though blustery conditions and heavy rain could last for 24 hours. The storm will lash the coast with up to 28 inches of rain and send tidal surges far deeper inland than usual, said the Bureau of Meteorology.
The bureau said most at risk was an area about 150 miles long between the tourist city of Cairns and the sugar cane-growing town of Ingham. It was unclear what the damage to the Great Barrier Reef would be, said experts.
Queensland officials had been warning people for days to stock up on bottled water and food, and to board or tape up their windows. People in low-lying or poorly protected areas were told to move in with family or friends on safer ground or move to evacuation centres.
“It’s such a big storm – it’s a monster, killer storm,” said Queensland premier Anna Bligh, adding that the only previous storm measured in the state at such strength was in 1918.