Cylone Yasi has started to batter the popular tourist area of the north Queensland coast, including the city Cairns, the Whitsunday Islands and the Great Barrier Reef.
The Bureau of Meteorology says the category five storm is likely to be more life-threatening than any storm in recent generations, and it has taken out electricity to thousands of residents.
Winds are expected to reach more than 150 kilometres per hour by tonight and a storm surge of up to two metres is forecast to flood up to 30,000 homes.
In Cairns thousands of people had packed into seven evacuation centres, including school halls, shopping centres, and sports hall in a bid to ride out the storm.
After intensifying overnight, Cyclone Yasi is travelling at 20mph and measures 360 miles wide. The same strength as Hurricane Katrina, it is expected to be the biggest and most deadly cyclone to hit Australia in history.
The storm is forecast to make landfall at midnight local time (2pm GMT) near the town of Innisfail, one hour’s drive south of Cairns, bringing a storm surge of up to 20ft above the high tide level.
Bob Katter, the federal MP for Innisfail, said that the town’s residents were extremely nervous.
“To have to be hit again is really, really terrible. I’m ... looking forward to the rest of the day with nothing less than dread,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
North-east Australian state’s premier, Anna Bligh, said: “This storm is huge and life-threatening. I know many of us feel Queensland has borne about as much
as we can when it comes to disasters and storms but more is being asked of us and I am confident we can rise to this next challenge.”
Brisbane, and other towns worst-hit by the floods of December and last month, are expected to be spared.
The police have warned that winds – predicted to be up to 180mph – would be strong enough to lift roofs from houses. They said the emergency services would not be available until the cyclone had passed.
Julia Gillard, the prime minister, warned the state to brace for widespread destruction.
She said the region was about to experience “many, many dreadful frightening hours”.
“(Yasi) is a powerful natural force but the courage of the people of far north Queensland is an even stronger force again,” she said.