Cyclone Debbie has turned deadly, killing one tourist this morning, as the storm is upgraded to a severe category 3. Queensland police said severe weather was a factor in a fatal crash, with Police Commissioner Ian Stewart confirming that a tourist had died. "It is time to think very logically about your safety and the safety of your family. But also, the safety of your neighbours, particularly if they are vulnerable people," he said. "The elderly and the infirm. I would ask people to really consider their actions." The tourist died after a two-car crash in the windswept Whitsundays. Paramedics say the crash happened on Shute Harbour Road near Proserpine around 8.10am. Two people were taken to Proserpine Hospital with minor injuries while another person died at the scene. "People need drive to the conditions and really think about whether they need to go outside at this point," Stewart said. "At some time later today the weather event in that area, in the warning area, will get to an extent where all Emergency Services will not be able to respond to calls for assistance. "We need you to help us to ensure there aren't any further tragedies," he said.
His warning comes as Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said wind gusts of up to 100km/h were already affecting the Whitsunday area as Cyclone Debbie bears down on Queensland. "The cyclone is now tracking further south," she said. Palaszczuk said the evacuation area had been expanded to Bowen. "This window of opportunity to leave is drastically closing," she said.
EVACUATIONS UNDER WAY
Thousands of people have been evacuated as the monster cyclone approaches, bringing 280km/h winds, destructive rain and tidal surges. People living in low-lying areas across Bowen, Proserpine and Airlie Beach have already been ordered to evacuate their homes as Debbie intensifies. The evacuations come amid warnings that the powerful storm surge will coincide with tomorrow's high tide, potentially putting people's lives in danger.
The Bureau of Meteorology has warned the category 3 cyclone is set to intensify to category 4 strength by tomorrow morning. Cyclone Debbie was expected to cross the Queensland state coast along a sparsely populated 100km stretch between the towns of Ayr and Bowen, Bureau of Meteorology forecaster Michael Paech said. The BoM has also warned residents between Lucinda and Mackay of the dangerous storm tide as the cyclone crosses the coast with warnings of a 4m surge expected.
Labelling it a "very dangerous storm" the BoM warns the cyclone could have destructive and devastating impacts, and those living in affected areas should evacuate now. Police and State Emergency Service volunteers have been doorknocking in red zones which are predicted to be affected by the storm tide. People have been told to pack essential belongings and to stay with friends or family on higher ground. Residents have been stocking up in supermarkets across the region and more than 100 schools and 100 early childhood centres remain closed. The closures stretch from north of Townsville to south of Proserpine. The arrival of Tropical Cyclone Debbie is forecast to be the worst since Cyclone Yasi six years ago, however authorities are concerned that many people are not taking the warnings seriously.
CAUGHT IN THE STORM
News.com.au reporter Emma Reynolds, who is currently in Airlie Beach, was told to evacuate via SMS yesterday. "We've been told by SES that low lying areas (ie the ground floor of our hotel on Shute Harbour Road) will definitely be underwater with 8m swell. [We were] told to get emergency water and chargers," she said. She was also said low-lying areas along the coast would be flooded with the SES in Airlie Beach declaring it a "disaster situation". Meanwhile, with the rain pouring down in Airlie Beach, residents and backpackers dressed in raincoats and ponchos were hurrying to stock up on supplies. Locals are sandbagging their properties, taping up windows and moving outdoor furniture inside, with even those not on the water's edge concerned the creek might overflow and turn their backyards into swimming pools. Tourists have been evacuated from waterfront hotels, with some finding properties on higher ground. Others have been trying to drive out of town before the cyclone hits with many backpackers taking shelter at a school in nearby Proserpine. David Coles, 29, and Natalie Businsky, 21, from Canberra told news.com.au their flight had been cancelled so they were staying on at an Airbnb with a local family who have a basement.
"There are buses to Cairns today, my mum wanted me to get on one but we decided not to go," said Coles. "There's a bunker in the house." The pair were buying "canned food, spaghetti, stuff we don't have to cook", he added. "We're stuck here until Wednesday but it depends how bad the damage is, it could be even later," said Businsky. Shelves at Woolworths were emptied of bottled water, with the supermarket due to close after midday and remain shut tomorrow when the storm hits. Greg Saunders, 42, said "everyone" had been into the local bottle shop where he works and that the store would probably be one of the last open.
Saunders, who lives in nearby Cannonvale, said his brother had moved into his house after being evacuated. "A lot of people who don't have houses are worried, people living in caravans, travelling by car, living in hostels that aren't protected. The people who've been moved haven't been given much guidance on what to do." Leonie Ager, 58, was out on her catamaran when she received a text to make her way to shore, and asked the owner if she could stay at a property she had been looking at buying at Whitsundays Rainforest Retreat. "It was pretty rough getting home," she said. "At the moment, it's the highest tide of the year and then you've got a tidal surge, that's the problem. "They can't guarantee the emergency services will come help you [in the marina] because of tidal surges. We're just bracing ourselves."
Shani Granville, from Sydney, said her family had been moved from a room high on a corner to lower down at Peppers resort. She was out buying food and drink for a group of adults and children, but said her 10-month-old daughter would "have to eat breakfast pouches for the next four days". The 34-year-old added: "You come here for a holiday on the Great Barrier Reef, my son was so excited to go snorkelling, but at least he can tell his friends he's been in a cyclone."
'NOT GOING ANYWHERE'
Queensland Fire and Emergency Services commissioner Mark Roch earlier told Today history says this cyclone will cause significant damage. Roch said some people don't want to evacuate but they needed to listen to the advice at hand. "Well, in reality, there's been a number of emergency alerts in very specific locations, and that's within Townsville, Burdekin, and also Whitsunday Local Government areas," he said. "They need to listen to that advice, listen to the experts. And we are asking people if you are getting advice to leave, please leave."
He warned people needed to listen and act now before it is too late. "Take this seriously. This is going to be a significant event," he said. Despite the warnings, some residents have refused to leave and are waiting the storm out. Darrell Locke, 62, who lives in a red zone at Queen's Beach in Bowen, told the Courier-Mail he had seen out six cyclones and had no plans to go anywhere. "This'll be the biggest cyclone we've ever seen but we're all boarded up and will stick it out," he said. Ayr resident Jan Bridges, was also refusing to leave her home despite being in the direct path of Cyclone Debbie. "I'm staying," Bridges told authorities who urged her to leave. An Emergency Alert issued at 9pm last night by the Burdekin Local Disaster Management Group said communities are expecting impact from a dangerous storm tide caused by Tropical Cyclone Debbie.
Debbie is moving slowly. Bureau forecaster Michael Paech told AAP Debbie is expected to hit land between 7am and 9am tomorrow, but that could change as the system's tracks towards the coast slowing overnight. The Whitsunday Islands are already being buffeted by gales, while abnormally high tides are expected to occur south of Proserpine later today. The bureau forecasts the "very destructive core" of Debbie will bring with it wind gusts between 260-280km/h in the cyclone's centre. In a statement BoM Queensland Regional Director Bruce Gunn warned this cyclone is very dangerous. "Communities between Lucinda and St Lawrence, including Townsville, Bowen and Mackay, may experience gales in the next 24 hours, with the Whitsundays and surrounding coastal islands among the first areas to be impacted," he said.
"Storm surge is also risk factor, and if the cyclone crosses the coast around high tide this will enhance these effects. People living in coastal or low-lying areas prone to flooding should follow the advice of local emergency services and relocate while there is time. "Cyclone Debbie is likely to maintain cyclone strength for some distance inland towards Charters Towers, with damaging to destructive winds, delivering significant rainfall as it tracks to the west-southwest." Areas on the outer reaches of the storm will still receive winds with gusts more than 100km/h, forecasters are warning. Queensland Emergency and Fire Services Commissioner Katarina Carroll said the likelihood of a storm surge and major flooding in low-lying areas was extremely concerning. "We know north Queenslanders are very, very resilient, but certainly we do have concerns about the storm surges in those low-lying areas," she told Nine.
According to the BoM, a Category 4 system is defined as one that has sustained winds in the range of 160-200km/h, with gusts up to 280km/h. While the strongest winds are near the core, damaging and very destructive winds can extend several hundred kilometres from the cyclone's centre. The BoM predicts Townsville - home to around 190,000 people - could also be impacted by Category 3 strength winds, with gusts in excess of 165km/h. Widespread daily rainfall of up to 200mm is expected as the cyclone hits, with isolated falls in excess of 400mm possible along the coastal fringe. Evacuations began yesterday, with the Whitsunday Regional Council ordering people in several low-lying coastal areas of the region ahead of a forecast significant tidal storm surge to seek higher ground. More than 1000 emergency services staff as well as Australian Defence Force personnel are being deployed to the region in anticipation of the storm's arrival.
Earlier Palaszczuk repeated warnings for people in affected areas to leave now. Speaking to Nine Palaszczuk said people in low lying areas had already been evacuated. "The issue here is that the winds are going to be incredibly strong," she said. "A lot of these houses are pre-1985. So if people cannot go and stay with family and friends, I'm urging people to please hop on those buses and leave town. "This is going to be very destructive winds. We expect a category 4 cyclone. So within 24 hours this cyclone will be crossing the Queensland coast." She also warned this was no ordinary storm. "These wind gusts are going to be absolutely huge and my primary concern is to making sure that families are safe and that they are listening to the messages," she said. "Turn on your radio, listen to your television, read the papers. Make sure you are keeping updated with everything that is happening. This is going to be a nasty cyclone." - Additional reporting by AAP.