Thousands on alert as Cyclone Debbie bears down on Australia

Thousands of Australians were being urged to evacuate from coastal communities in the path of a powerful cyclone on Monday, as the storm bore down on the nation’s northeast.

Cyclone Debbie is forecast to strengthen to a Category four storm, bringing winds of up to 300 km per hour (185 miles per hour), before it makes landfall in Queensland state early on Tuesday, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology said.

State Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk warned it would be the most powerful storm to hit the country since Cyclone Yasi in 2011, which destroyed homes, shredded crops and ruined island resorts.

The Abbot Point coal terminal and ports at Mackay and Hay Point have been closed until further notice, ports spokeswoman, Fiona Cunningham, said.

Forced evacuations have been enacted for several low-lying townships near Townsville, while authorities recommended that thousands of people further south also evacuate.

“This is going to be a nasty cyclone,” Palaszczuk told Nine Network television. “These wind gusts are going to be absolutely huge.”

The army was on standby to provide assistance once the storm had passed, she said, while fuel and energy companies were stockpiling supplies and extra food stocks were being sent to the area.

Gales were already lashing the tourist resorts of the Whitsunday Islands off the Queensland coast.

Queensland produces some 95 percent of Australian bananas and while Cyclone Debbie is on course to miss the largest growing regions in the state’s far north, analysts said heavy rains and strong winds could cause significant crop damage.

A category five storm is the strongest on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity. (Courtesy Reuters)