UPDATE 2.20pm (AEDT) – Cyclone Debbie has crossed the north Queensland coast in between Bowen and Airlie Beach, according to the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM).
The crossing began about 1.15pm AEDT. Earlier on Tuesday the category-four cyclone moved over the Whitsundays, with 263km/h wind gusts hitting Hayman Island.
Even before the storm made landfall, reports of fallen trees, damaged buildings and sea vessels broken from their moorings poured in from mainland Queensland.
Similar reports of damage came from the Whitsundays, where images and videos showed debris strewn across the area. Wind gusts of 124km/h were recorded at Bowen at 1pm (AEDT).
The cyclone was upgraded to category four on Monday and the strongest part of the storm moved over Hayman Island early on Tuesday.
— Luke Cummings (@LukeCummings81) March 28, 2017
Because the cyclone is moving slowly (12km/h) with a large “eye wall” (50km across), it may take eight or so hours for the cyclone to pass some towns completely.
Police said that could also extend to 18 hours in some parts.
Winds of up to 263km/h hit Hayman Island on Tuesday morning. There had been 130mm of rain fall in Bowen since midnight. That’s before the storm’s eye made landfall at the town.
A post shared by Tarin (@tarinmoloney) on
Thousands of locals living in low-lying towns were told it was too late to evacuate on Tuesday morning.
Destructive winds are no longer expected to hit Townsville, Charters Towers, Mackay or Sarina, although residents were urged to remain cautious.
Airlie Beach was completely without power on Tuesday morning and wind gusts of about 50km/h were being felt in towns in the area.
More than 25,000 people in Mackay were urged to abandon their homes on Monday, with fears the cyclone will bring a devastating tidal surge to the region. Some 21,000 homes are currently without power.
Warnings are in place from Lucinda to St Lawrence including large towns like Townsville, Mackay and the Whitsundays.
According to the BoM, Cyclone Debbie could intensify even further and reach category five, with winds predicted up to 260 km/h.
In a dramatic turn of events, the predicted storm surge inundation in Mackay, which ranged between 0.8m and 2.5m, increased to a possible 8 metres on Monday evening, ABC News 24 reported.
NASA released footage of the storm taken from the International Space Station, demonstrating the storm’s startling magnitude.
“This is going to be a monster of a cyclone,” Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk told Ten News on Monday.
“Because of the intensity of this cyclone and the timing at the moment that it is due to cross land, we are very concerned at the moment about the perspective, the tidal surge in Mackay,” she said in a press conference.
“My priority is for Queenslanders to be safe, right up and down the coastal communities that are in the zone.
“Please now reassure your children, go to the safest place in your house – the most secure.
“We are in the stage now where some communities are already in lockdown, so they should not move.
“I want to reassure you that in the daybreak once the storm has passed, we have emergency response personnel there ready to assist you and your families.”
More than 350 schools and childcare services have been closed as a result.
Meanwhile, buses were supplied in Ayr on the morning before Debbie was expected to hit, taking residents and visitors to Cairns.
“This is probably the largest evacuation we’ve ever had to do,” Ms Palaszczuk said.
But after a tourist’s death on a road near Proserpine on Monday, which was “associated with this weather event”, backpackers and hostels are fearing for those most at risk.
Israeli backpacker Michael Berman told The New Daily he was safe in Jubilee Pocket, but worried for fellow tourists who had nowhere to go.
“If they’ve been evacuated where can they go? Where do they go when they get off the bus?” he said.
Kipara Tropical Rainforest Retreat in Airlie Beach is a popular location for backpackers, but manager Shirley Manners is concerned for the hostel’s future.
“As much as it’s safe from the storm surge, I don’t know how safe it is from everything else,” Ms Manners told The New Daily.
The hostel has not taken on new guests in recent days for fear of the incoming cyclone, she said.
However, she said she would open her doors to any tourists in need, saying “we are happy to help”.
– with ABC