Cyclone Debbie hit the Great Barrier Reef area having been upgraded overnight to a category four storm, just one rung below the most dangerous wind speed level. The cyclone is expected to make landfall in northeast Queensland and has been gaining in force en-route.
Authorities warned it could reach level five by the time it makes landfall around 2 pm local time (0300 GMT). Wind gusts of more than 135 mph/220 kph lashed resorts in the Whitsunday Islands, where tourists waited out the storm in hotel rooms.
High winds and heavy rainfall battered coastal areas in northeast Australia on Tuesday as a powerful cyclone, which prompted authorities to urge some 30,000 people to evacuate, hit island resorts along the world-famous Great Barrier Reef.
A last-minute evacuation was carried out in the Queensland town of Mackay as “monster” Cyclone Debbie gained intensity and threatened to cause widespread destruction in conjunction with a high tide.
Authorities urged thousands of people in low-lying areas at risk from tidal surges and winds of up to 185 mph/300 kph 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 in 1974.
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.
All flights in and out of Townsville have been cancelled ahead of Debbie making landfall and beaches from Townsville to Sarina have been closed.
Flight disruptions are expected to continue until at least 31st March.
Tigerair told passengers whose flights were cancelled they would not be able to get a flight until Friday, although some flights are still scheduled to leave on Wednesday and Thursday, weather permitting.