CAIRNS, Australia – Tens of thousands of Australians stocked up on food and hunkered in sturdy shelters Wednesday as a monster cyclone approached the northeast coast with furious winds, rains and surging seas on a scale unseen there in generations.
Gusts up to 186 mph (300 kph) were expected when Cyclone Yasi strikes the coast late Wednesday after whipping across Australia's Great Barrier Reef. The storm front is more than 310 miles (500 kilometers) wide and Yasi is so strong, it could reach far inland before it significantly loses power.
Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said the last cyclone of such strength to cross Queensland was in 1918.
"It's such a big storm — it's a monster, killer storm," Bligh said. "This impact is likely to be more life threatening than any experienced during recent generations."
Bligh said coastal residents should have left already as their region would undoubtedly flood during an expected high sea surge. People farther inland were told to "bunker down" in their homes and get ready for gale-force winds. More than 10,000 people were already in evacuation centers, and roads were closing as strong winds and heavy rain made travel unsafe.
Landfall was expected just south of Cairns — a city of about 164,000 people about 2,250 kilometers (1,400 miles) north of Sydney and a gateway for visitors to the Great Barrier Reef — between the towns of Innisfail and Cardwell. The rural community of Innisfail was devastated by Cyclone Larry in 2006 with thousands of homes and banana and sugar cane plantations destroyed. No one was killed.
Earlier Wednesday, Bligh had told coastal residents their window of opportunity to flee was 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.
"What it all adds up to is a very frightening time," Bligh said. "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 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 centers 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.
"Just another day in paradise!" Andy Gates quipped. 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 they 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.
The storm will whip over the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef, which stretches 1,600 miles (2,600 kilometers) along Queensland's coast.
A spokeswoman for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority said it was too early to speculate on how Yasi would impact the world's largest coral reef system.
"After the cyclone has crossed the coast we will be in a better position to understand its impact," she said, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with policy.
Previous cyclones have caused damage to the underlying reef, breaking and displacing coral.
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.
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