Queenslanders are being warned to brace for “a monster” as Cyclone Debbie barrels ever closer to the state’s northern coastline.
Debbie intensified to a Category 4 system at 8pm on Monday, the Bureau of Meteorology said.
The cyclone is forecast to hit the coast near Bowen at 8am on Tuesday at the same intensity, ahead of high tide at 9.44am.
“This is going to be a monster of a cyclone,” Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk told Ten News.
She urged Queenslanders to stay calm and predicted the state’s encounter with the huge tropical storm would be “tough”.
“It’s going to be a long night,” she warned.
Forecasters predict wind gusts within Debbie’s destructive core could reach up to 275km/h but say the situation is changing rapidly
“It could take up to 18 hours for this core to pass,” Ms Palaszczuk said.
“This is a destructive cyclone. Make no mistake.”
It comes after Debbie sparked a mass evacuation of thousands of residents in low-lying Mackay – which could be swamped by a devastating tidal surge – who were urged to leave their homes on Monday afternoon.
Ms Palaszczuk said authorities were “very concerned” about the potential surge in Mackay, which forecasters warn could be as high as 2.5 metres above the highest astronomical tide.
“This is probably the largest evacuation we’ve ever had to do,” she said.
Police Commissioner Ian Stewart said there were about 25,000 residents in the affected zones but it was possible many had already left.
“We are asking people that can move out of those low-lying areas that are depicted on the local maps on the council website to move now,” he said.
“Don’t wait until tomorrow because you will not be able to move probably past midnight tonight.”
The tide is also expected to peak at 3.2 metres in Bowen – which the latest tracking map puts directly in Debbie’s firing line – with fears of a storm surge of three to four metres above that level.
The bureau has warned it will be the most severe storm to hit the state since 2011’s Cyclone Yasi.
Shortly after 8pm on Monday, Cyclone Debbie was about 195 kilometres north northeast of Mackay moving west southwest at 9km/hr.
The latest tracking map issued by the bureau predicted Debbie would weaken to a Category 2 system about 8pm on Tuesday, after it passes an area near Collinsville and Bowen.
The storm has already disrupted flights, with Townsville airport closed, as well as more than 100 north Queensland schools.
Local farmers are also bracing for potential devastation, with the Bowen area accounting for more than 90 per cent of Australian tomatoes and 95 per cent of capsicums for consumption in September and October.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said earlier on Monday that those who had received an official evacuation order should leave immediately and defence force personnel would be ready to respond to the looming crisis.
More than 800 Queensland energy workers are also at the ready, with power issues likely.
Police say the cyclone has already contributed to one death after a 31-year-old female tourist died in a car crash near Proserpine.
Deputy Commissioner Steve Gollschewski said people had largely complied with evacuation orders in Ayr, the Whitsundays and in Bowen but some had decided to stay.
“You can shelter from wind in your house. You cannot shelter from a storm surge,” he warned.
In Townsville, wind speeds are expected to match those recorded when the region’s last severe cyclone, Yasi, struck six years ago.
An extra 25 paramedics have been deployed to the danger zone and about 600 hospital beds have been cleared.