Tropical Cyclone Debbie tore through Queensland state’s far north.
Wind gusts stronger than 260 km per hour were recorded at tourist resorts along the world-famous Great Barrier Reef as the powerful storm, at category four just one rung below the most dangerous wind speed level, began to make landfall.
No injuries had been reported so far but the storm was travelling south-west so slowly that weather forecasters said cyclone conditions could persist for as long as 24 hours.
“It’s very noisy: Screaming, howling wind … sounds like a freight train,” Jan Clifford told Reuters by text from Airlie Beach, about 950 km north-west of the state capital, Brisbane.
Authorities had urged thousands of people in low-lying areas to flee their homes on Monday, in what would be the biggest evacuation seen in Australia since Cyclone Tracy devastated the northern city of Darwin on Christmas Day, 1974.
Cyclone Debbie made landfall at Airlie Beach shortly after midday local time (2 AM GMT), knocking out telephone services.
Torrential rain flooded streets and wind smashed windows, uprooted trees, and tossed debris through streets, while jetties at Airlie Beach marina were wrecked, pictures broadcast on Nine Network television showed.
Power was cut for 38,000 people in a wide area between the towns of Bowen and Mackay, north and south of Airlie Beach, utility Ergon Energy said.
Ports at Abbot Point, Mackay, and Hay Point were shut, Townsville airport was closed and airlines Qantas, Jetstar, Rex, and Virgin Australia cancelled several flights to and from the region.
BHP Billiton and Glencore halted work at their coal mines in the storm’s path.