Thousands of Australians fled their homes on Monday as a powerful cyclone bore down on coastal towns in Queensland, where authorities urged 30,000 people to evacuate low-lying areas most at risk from tidal surges and winds of up to 185 miles per hour.
Cyclone Debbie is expected to gather strength before making landfall in the northeast state early on Tuesday, with the Australian Bureau of Meteorology forecasting a category four storm, just one rung below the most dangerous wind speed level.
The growing alarm persuaded the state government on Monday to warn some 25,000 people living in parts of Mackay, a city 590 miles north of the state capital Brisbane, to head south to higher ground.
“Because of the intensity of this cyclone … we are very concerned, at the moment, at the prospect of a tidal surge in Mackay,” State Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk told reporters.
“It’s very clear that the time for people to move is now.”
The evacuation from Mackay would be the biggest seen in Australia since Cyclone Tracy struck the northern city of Darwin in 1974.
State authorities had already advised thousands of residents in two townships several hundred miles to the north of Mackay to leave their homes, though some were preparing to ride out the storm.
Television images showed residents in areas around Townsville, about 250 miles to the north of Mackay, protecting homes and shops with sandbags and plywood boards.