SYDNEY // Howling winds and driving rain announced the arrival in north Queensland early this morning of Cyclone Yasi, possibly Australia's most powerful storm ever.
Terrified residents and tourists hunkered down in evacuation centres or barricaded themselves in bathrooms.
Yasi, with winds of up to 300 kph, was already tearing off roofs, picking up lorries and downing trees and power lines, but authorities said the extent of the destruction would not be clear until first light today.
The Queensland premier, Anna Bligh, warned: "We are set to encounter scenes of devastation and heart-break on an unprecedented scale. This cyclone is like nothing else we've dealt with before as a nation."
With disaster management officials predicting potentially lethal storm surges of up to seven metres in Yasi's wake, tens of thousands of people had fled their homes in low-lying areas earlier this week. Those who stayed put were advised to assemble emergency supplies and seek refuge in their bathrooms or basements, sheltering from flying debris behind mattresses.
The north Queensland coast, particularly the city of Cairns, the main jumping-off point for the Great Barrier Reef, is one of Australia's main tourist destinations.
Yesterday Cairns was deserted, with its airport sandbagged and frightened backpackers trying to hitch a lift to safety.
Queensland, hit by its worst floods in decades last month, which killed 35 people, had barely begun to recover when dire warnings were issued about Yasi. Although the cyclone danger zone lies to the north of the inundated areas, the state's emergency services are overstretched because of the flood crisis, and morale is low.
Yasi, upgraded yesterday to a category five storm, the most severe, struck land shortly after midnight local time near the small resort town of Mission Beach. Bill Shannon, the mayor of Innisfail, one of a string of towns and cities bracing along a 300-kilometre stretch of heavily populated coast, said: "We're just hoping and praying we can all get through the night."
The state disaster co-ordinator, Ian Stewart, said residents should be prepared for roofs lifting off, windows exploding and older buildings "collapsing like a house of cards".
Ms Bligh, who described Yasi as "a monster, killer storm", said people in the cyclone's path faced "a very terrifying 24 hours", while Mr Stewart warned they would have to fend for themselves during that period.
Alan Buckingham, a Briton who lives in Cairns with his Australian partner, Jane Alcorn, planned to shelter in the garage of his apartment block. Clearly nervous, he said yesterday that he had never experienced a cyclone before.
"Where do you run to?" he asked. "You can't run inland and outpace it. You've got to sit it out."
Foreign backpackers, meanwhile, were trying to find a way out. "We are terrified," said Marlim Flagar, from Sweden. "We have had almost no information and have never seen storms like this."
Overflowing evacuation centres were forced to turn people away yesterday, and in Townsville some families ended up spending the night in an underground car park.
Meteorologists said that Yasi, which demolished an offshore weather station in its path yesterday that had just recorded its size and strength, dwarfed Cyclone Tracy, which levelled the city of Darwin in 1974 and killed 71 people.
While Yasi's destructive winds and pounding rain were frightening enough, authorities said the main threat was from storm surges, coming on top of a king tide.
Major flooding of low-lying coastal areas was predicted, with up to 30,000 homes in Townsville alone in danger of being inundated.
Yasi, which according to satellite images yesterday covers an area bigger than Italy, was set to dump up to 70cm of rain within hours and to hammer north Queensland, including towns hundreds of kilometres inland, for up to three days.
"This is a cyclone of savagery and intensity," the prime minister, Julia Gillard, told a nationally televised press conference. "This is probably the worst cyclone that our nation has ever seen."
The Australian military yesterday was readying supply ships with aircraft landing capabilities to help with search and rescue operations once the storm passed. In Townsville, a major garrison town 350km south of Cairns, 4,000 soldiers had been placed on standby.
About 10,000 people spent last night in 20 evacuation centres, with tens of thousands more staying with family and friends or in hotels inland. At least 90,000 homes had lost electricity by the time the storm struck, and the mobile phone network was expected to be cut.
Queensland has not experienced a category five cyclone since 1918. A Bureau of Meteorology forecaster, Gordon Banks, said wind gusts of more than 320kph were possible, "which is just horrific".
Engineers said Yasi could even blow apart houses that were supposed to be cyclone-proof, as its eye whipped over the land.
Ms Bligh said the "storm of catastrophic proportions" was likely to be "more life-threatening than any experienced during recent generations". Its impact on the Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest coral reef system, remains to be seen.