QUEENSLAND – A powerful cyclone barreled toward the northeastern coast of Australia on Monday, forcing thousands of Queensland residents to leave their homes, halting ferry and train service and closing a local airport as officials warned of the potential for widespread damage.
The Category 3 storm, named Cyclone Debbie, is expected to intensify to a Category 4 as it nears the Queensland coast early Tuesday. A Category 4 storm on the Australian scale entails gusts of more than 140 miles per hour.
Officials said at least one death was tied to the worsening weather.
The storm is expected to hit land between Rollingstone, a semirural and residential town north of Townsville, and Proserpine, a town in the Whitsunday region that, along with its surrounding coastal islands, is a popular destination for tourists.
Officials warned residents to leave the area before it was too late, as dangerous storm tides, powerful winds and heavy rain were expected to batter the region.
“People living in coastal or low-lying areas prone to flooding should follow the advice of local emergency services and relocate while there is time,” said Bruce Gunn, the regional director of Queensland’s bureau of meteorology. “Cyclone Debbie is likely to maintain cyclone strength for some distance inland,” with “damaging to destructive winds delivering significant rainfall.”
Mr. Gunn said the cyclone was of a size that had not been seen in the state since Cyclone Yasi, a severe tropical storm, hit in 2011. That storm, which caused billions of dollars in damage, was one of the most powerful cyclones to have affected Queensland since record-keeping began, according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.
The weather bureau said winds caused by the storm this week could be strong enough to blow away cars and warned there could be widespread structural damage to homes as well as extensive power failures. Queensland’s police commissioner, Ian Stewart, said one tourist had died in a crash on Monday in an accident that was believed to be associated with the already severe weather.
With heavy rain expected to cause major flooding, about 3,500 Queensland residents have already been evacuated, and thousands more have been asked to leave their homes. Evacuation centers have been set up in areas like Prosperine and the Whitsundays, and buses were transporting people to Cairns, a city in far north Queensland. All commercial flights in and out of Townsville Airport have been canceled.
Residents of the area flocked to supermarkets Sunday to stock up on water, food and batteries. In Townsville, after generators quickly sold out at a hardware store, about 40 people waited for a truckload of new ones, with some people driving 120 miles or more to get in line.
State officials said they had deployed dozens of additional emergency workers to the region.
“We’re making sure we’ve got all the preparations in place,” Queensland’s premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, said at a news conference Monday morning. “We need to make sure that all of the preparations are done, because in 12 hours’ time, it’s going to be absolutely too late for anyone to leave,” Ms. Palaszczuk said.