Cyclone Debbie Expected to Hit Queensland, Australia, Early Tuesday; Storm Could Intensify to Category 5

Storm clouds gathered over the town of Ayr in northern Queensland on Monday as a cyclone approached Australia. (Peter Parks/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

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 4 storm, named Cyclone Debbie, is expected to hit the Queensland coast early Tuesday and could intensify to a Category 5. A Category 4 storm on the Australian scale entails gusts of more than 140 miles per hour.

Officials said at least one death had been linked to the worsening weather.

This satellite image shows the cyclone on Friday in the Coral Sea off Queensland, on Australia’s northeastern coast. (NASA)

The storm is expected to cross the Queensland coast between Ayr, a town southeast of Townsville, and Mackay in the Mackay-Whitsunday region, near the Whitsunday Islands, a popular destination for tourists.

The premier of Queensland, Annastacia Palaszczuk, said at a news conference Monday evening that communities including Bowen, the Whitsunday Islands and Airlie Beach “were in lockdown and should not move.” She said evacuations were still taking place around Mackay because of the expected impact of the storm. “It’s going to be a tough night,” Ms. Palaszczuk said.

Strong winds and heavy rains lashed Airlie Beach on Monday as the cyclone approached.

Officials warned residents earlier on Monday to leave the area before it was too late, as dangerous storm tides, powerful winds and heavy rain were expected to batter the region.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Jacqueline Williams