SYDNEY, March 28 Coastal areas in northeast
Australia were battered by high winds and heavy rainfall early
on Tuesday as a powerful cyclone that prompted authorities to
urge some 30,000 people to evacuate bore down on the country.
Cyclone Debbie was upgraded overnight to a category four
storm, just one rung below the most dangerous wind speed level,
and authorities warned it could reach level five by the time it
makes landfall around midday local time (0100 GMT).
The Australian Bureau of Meteorology said Debbie continued
to gather strength, despite slowing its progress during the
night - the storm had been expected to make landfall several
hours earlier than the most recent forecast.
It is expected to be the most powerful storm to hit the
state of Queensland since Cyclone Yasi destroyed homes and crops
and devastated island resorts in 2011.
"The eye itself is probably 50 kilometres (31 miles)
across," said senior forecaster Adam Blazak.
Authorities urged thousands of people in low-lying areas at
risk from tidal surges and winds of up to 300 km per hour (185
mph) to flee their homes on Monday in what would be the biggest
evacuation seen in Australia since Cyclone Tracy struck the
northern city of Darwin in 1974.
It was unclear early on Tuesday how many people had heeded
that advice as gales lashed tourist resorts at Airlie Beach and
the Whitsunday Islands.
Authorities have stockpiled food and fuel, and the army is
on standby to deal with the aftermath.
Townsville Airport was closed and airlines Qantas,
Jetstar, Rex and Virgin Australia said they had
cancelled several flights to and from the region.
The Abbot Point coal terminal and ports at Mackay and Hay
Point were closed. BHP Billiton suspended
operations at its South Walker Creek coal mine and Glencore
halted operations at the Collinsville and Newlands coal
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.
Greg Williamson, the mayor of the town of Mackay, which lies
in the path of the storm, said the cyclone had proved more
unpredictable than initially forecast.
"It's been a matter of trying to second-guess where it's
going to happen," he told the Australian Broadcasting
Corporation. "It's trying to make strategic decisions with
assets and people's lives."
Police blamed the wild weather associated with the storm for
a traffic accident on Monday in which a 31-year-old female
(Reporting by Jane Wardell; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)