TOWNSVILLE, Australia – Thousands of people began evacuating low-lying areas of Australia's tropical northeast on Monday as a powerful cyclone bore down on the coast.
Cyclone Debbie was expected to cross the Queensland state coast along a sparsely populated 100-kilometer (60-mile) stretch between the towns of Ayr and Bowen early Tuesday, Australian Bureau of Meteorology forecaster Michael Paech said.
The cyclone was churning over the Pacific Ocean as a Category 3 storm on Monday, with wind gusts up to 165 kilometers per hour (100 mph). It was expected to intensify to a Category 4 storm with wind gusts up to 260 kph per hour (160 mph) when it crosses on to land, Paech said.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk urged people in the most vulnerable areas to evacuate on Monday before conditions deteriorate.
She said the farming region had never experienced a storm stronger than Category 2, which packs wind gusts of between 125 and 164 kph (78 and 102 mph). Older homes would not withstand a Category 4 storm, Palaszczuk said.
"This window of opportunity to leave is drastically closing," Palaszczuk told reporters. "I am just pleading to everyone, please, listen to authorities. I do, you must as well. This is about your safety, it is about the safety of your family and the safety of your children."
People were being bused out of low-lying areas ahead of a tidal surge that could be as high as 4 meters (13 feet), Palaszczuk said.
The storm late Monday morning was about 375 kilometers (230 miles) east of Townsville, a coastal city 90 kilometers (55 miles) north of Ayr.