Some defiant residents have vowed to stay at home as Queensland braces for its the biggest cyclone in five years. Winds could reach 240 kilometers per hour and the tide could swell two and half meters above normal.
Thousands of Australians were forced to evacuate their homes as a powerful tropical cyclone advanced on coastal Queensland on Monday.
State Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk warned it would be the most powerful storm to hit the country since 2011, when Cyclone Yasi caused damage estimated at AU$3.5 billion (2.6 billion euros or US$3.6 billion at the time).
The Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) said Debbie would likely strengthen to a Category 4 storm before it makes landfall in the north-eastern state. Cyclone Yasi was a Category 5 storm.
German tourist dies
A 31-year-old German tourist died in a car crash on Monday caused by cyclonic conditions near Proserpine, police said.
"The Whitsunday Times" reported a pickup truck with a trailer T-boned a white Toyota Corolla carrying two German passengers. The second passenger was taken to Proserpine hospital, along with one of the truck occupants.
About 3,500 people fled low-lying townships near Townsville, with authorities advising a further 2,000 people in the town of Bowen to also leave, Palaszczuk said.
"This is going to be a nasty cyclone," Palaszczuk told Nine Network television. "These wind gusts are going to be absolutely huge."
She pleaded with the residents to comply with evacuation orders, saying, "The window of opportunity to leave is drastically closing."
"For those in the path of Cyclone Debbie, please take care and stay safe. If you have received an official evacuation order, you and your family must leave immediately," Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said.
Many residents resisted calls to leave, staying behind to protect homes and shops with sandbags and plywood boards.
"We'll just give it a go and rally together," Cungulla resident Mike Kennedy told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
One resident painted a defiant message on his fence. Not seen is the rest of the message: "Bowen is not a pussy town. Do your best."
The BOM warned winds in the "very destructive core" of the tropical cyclone could reach 240 kph (150 mph) as it hit land between Ayr and Cape Hillsborough north of Mackay at about 10 a.m. on Tuesday morning.
Gales were already lashing the tourist resorts at Airlie Beach and the Whitsunday Islands on Monday. Authorities warned of flooding caused by up to 500mm (20 inches) and tides up to 2.5 meters (8 feet) higher than the normal high tide mark.
The Abbot Point coal terminal and ports at Mackay and Hay Point were closed due to the storm, ports spokeswoman Fiona Cunningham said, while BHP Billiton and Glencore suspended operations near the cyclone's expected path.
Townsville Airport was closed and airlines Qantas, Jetstar, Rex and Virgin Australia all said they had cancelled several flights to and from the region scheduled for Monday and Tuesday.
aw/rc (Reuters, dpa)