Forecasters said Cyclone Yasi could be generating gales of more than 250 kph when it hits the coast on Wednesday or Thursday, which would put it on a par with Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005.
Yasi is expected to hit Queensland just days after another tropical storm struck the state. Cyclone Anthony hit the coast early Monday morning and quickly weakened from 80 mph (130 kph) winds to a tropical low. The storm uprooted trees and knocked down power lines in some areas but spared communities any major damage.
"This is a very serious threat," Queensland Premier Anna Bligh told reporters. "It may be one of the largest and most significant cyclones we've ever had to deal with."
Tropical cyclone Yasi, which formed in the Coral Sea, is emerging as a triple threat to Queensland's highly populated north coast, bringing with it destructive winds, storm surge and heavy rains. Officials are prompting evacuations and are warning that the storm could be the worst the already-swamped region has ever seen.
Weather bureau meteorologist Gordon Banks rated the developing system off Fiji as very dangerous.
Mr Banks said it would move slowly inland, a situation that tended to bring flood rains. "It's developing strongly near Vanuatu and we don't expect it to lose too much strength as it moves towards the coast," Mr Banks said. "If it is as strong as the models suggest, category three or better, heavy rain could potentially affect the interior on Friday, Saturday and Sunday."
Mr Banks said the cyclone was expected to come ashore in the north, but because it was so early in its development, nowhere between Princess Charlotte Bay on Cape York and Fraser Island in the southeast could be ruled out.
Currently, however, the cyclone is expected to cross the coast between Innisfail and Proserpine -- with Queensland's northern capital of Townsville directly in its path (left) -- overnight on Wednesday as a Category 2 system, bringing wind gusts of up to 275km/h and heavy rain.
Authorities are also extremely concerned about possible storm surges and flooding, advising residents in low-lying waterfront areas to relocate to higher ground.
Queensland disaster coordinator Ian Stewart yesterday warned north Queensland residents used to tropical cyclones not to underestimate the system.
"Relocation should be considered by people in low-lying areas. This is a very, very serious threat to the safety of our coastline and the safety of our community," he said.
The coastal region is home to more than 310,000 people, including Queensland's second-largest city of Townsville, with 180,000 people, and the growth hub of Mackay, population 80,000. But the coastline is also dotted with towns of just under 10,000 people, including Innisfail, Ayr and Bowen, and towns with between 3000 and 5000 people, including Ingham, Mission Beach, Tully, Home Hill and Proserpine.
Winds of more than 100km/h will buffet the area by mid-morning tomorrow.
Strong building codes have been in place since the 1960s in north Queensland, in a bid to ensure properties are better protected against cyclones and authorities have advised residents -- other than people in low-lying waterfront areas -- to remain in their homes. Heavy rain, including predictions of dumps of more than a meter, will spread south and inland from where Yasi crosses the coast, and is expected to inundate already sodden catchments of the central highlands. (At right: people in low lying areas wade out of flooding from earlier in year)
Queensland, which accounts for about a fifth of Australia's economy and 90 percent of its exports of steel making coal, has borne the brunt of a cruel summer, with floods having swept across the eastern seaboard in the past month, killing at least 35 people.
Cyclone Anthony then Cyclone Yasi
Queensland is also home to Australia's sugar industry, (left: sugar cane fields being harvested) which was also hurt by the floods and now risks being battered by the cyclone.
The floods swamped around 30,000 homes, destroyed roads and rail lines (right) and crippled Queensland's coal industry, with up to 15 million tons of exports estimated to have been delayed into the second half of this year.
Queensland's coal mines are mostly well inland and unlikely to be smashed by Cyclone Yasi, but they could be drenched again by heavy rain. The mines are still struggling to pump water out of their pits.
The Queensland Resources Council has estimated that the state's coal miners would take until March to return to normal but warned on Monday of further delays because of cyclones.
"If we get any more rain, it's just going to stretch out that time frame," council spokeswoman Caroline Morrissey said.
"The problem is we have got water in the pits, the mine dams are full and to pump water out of the pits they need to pump the water into the mine dams and there is no room for the water."
Cyclone Yasi is expected to classified "category 4" by the time it reaches the coast. That is the second-highest category and would be around the same strength as Hurricane Katrina and the strongest to hit Australia since early 2006.
Cyclone Yasi, currently in the southwest Pacific, is expected to make landfall near the northeast military town of Townsville with wind gusts of 200 to 260 kph, but with damaging winds along more than 1,000 km (620 miles) of coastline.
Australia's largest export terminal for coking coal, Dalrymple Bay (at left), had already suspended operations on Sunday because of an earlier cyclone, now passed. It decided on Monday to remain closed with the rapid approach of Yasi.
A poll of analysts last week showed Queensland would lose 11.3 million tons in coking coal output in 2011, equal to almost 5 percent of world exports. Most analysts believed miners would take until end-March to return to normal.
No sugar ships are currently in the major export terminal of Mackay, Australia's biggest sugar export port (right) which can handle up to 3 million tons a year. Most of the sugar from last harvest has already been shipped.
Reuters, "Australia's north braces for massive cyclone", accessed January 31, 2011
The Australian, "Cyclone Yasi a triple threat to Queensland's north coast", accessed January 31, 2011