Canberra: Australia evacuated thousands of people from its northeast coast on Tuesday as a cyclone rivaling Hurricane Katrina bore down on tourism towns and rural communities, with officials saying it could even threaten areas deep inland that were ruined by floods last month.
Mines, rail lines and coal ports were closed in Queensland state as Cyclone Yasi headed toward the coastline. Up to a third of Australia`s sugar crop was also under threat, officials said.
"This storm is huge and life threatening," Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said, warning the system was still intensifying and picking up speed on its path from the Coral Sea, with destructive winds expected on Wednesday morning.
Cyclone Yasi is expected to generate winds of up to 280 kph (175 mph) when it hits the northern coast of tropical Queensland state early on Thursday, matching the strength of Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005.
With a strong monsoon feeding Yasi`s 650 km-wide front, the storm was also expected to maintain its intensity long after smashing into the coast and could sweep inland as far as the outback mining city of Mt Isa, some 900 km (600 miles) inland.
More than 400,000 people live in the cyclone`s expected path, including the cities of Cairns, Townsville and Mackay, which are also key tourist areas and take in Australia`s Great Barrier Reef.
Queensland, which accounts for about a fifth of Australia`s economy and 90 percent of steelmaking coal exports worth about USD 20 billion a year, has had a cruel summer, with floods having swept the eastern seaboard over the past month, killing 35 people.
"There`s no time for complacency," said Mike Brunker, mayor of the Whitsunday area near the Great Barrier Reef. "People in low-lying areas are evacuating to friends and family or, if they have to, leave town."
Satellite radar images showed Yasi as a massive storm covering almost the entire Coral Sea and moving toward Australia from near Vanuatu.
Among the areas in its path is the small tourist area of Mission Beach, which was flattened by Cyclone Larry in 2006.
"It`s a beautiful day today, but all of the tourists have now gone and we`re just preparing everything for the cyclone," Mission Beach resident Elvira Montgomery said.
"They are warning of a four meter tidal surge, so everything might all end up under water."
Authorities said Cyclone Yasi could be the most destructive cyclone to hit the area. A sugar industry official said it could threaten around a third of the state`s sugar cane crop.
Island resorts in the Whitsundays and parts of the tourism hub of Cairns and military town of Townsville were being evacuated along with other areas in the danger zone, between Cooktown in the north and near Mackay, a port, further south.
Military C-130 transport aircraft also evacuated the main hospital in Cairns. Extra commercial flights were scheduled to cope with an expected exodus of holidaymakers and residents.
Police were also empowered to forcibly move people from danger zones.
"This is not a system that`s going to cross the coast and rapidly weaken out," Bureau of Meteorology senior forecaster Gordon Banks said, warning winds could reach up to 280 kph and the storm could reach Mt Isa, 900 km inland.
"We could see this system pushing well in across northern Queensland as a significant tropical cyclone with damaging winds and very heavy rainfall," Banks said.