Cyclone Debbie was due to hit the north Queensland coast this morning, setting the scene for a devastating storm surge which could swamp the town of Bowen.
Debbie was expected to hit the coast as a Category 4 tropical cyclone just south of Bowen at 8am today local time (11am NZT), ahead of high tide at 9.44am.
The tide is expected to peak at 3m, with Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk warning of a storm surge of three to four metres above that level, putting low-lying areas at significant risk.
Queensland Police Deputy Commissioner Steve Gollschewski stressed to residents yesterday morning that it was time to move, with roads including the Bruce Highway to close as the cyclone moved in.
He said people had largely complied with evacuation orders in Ayr, the Whitsundays and in Bowen but some had decided to stay.
"You can shelter from wind in your house. You cannot shelter from a storm surge," he warned.
Last night Debbie was more than 300km east of Townsville and moving southwest at 10km/h.
The tropical cyclone was a Category 3 system with sustained winds near its centre of 150km/h and gusts up to 205km/h, forecasters said.
The Premier has warned the destructive core of winds could measure 100km across by the time it crosses the coast and some structures, particularly older homes, might not survive.
Palaszczuk pleaded with residents not to ignore police warnings to get out.
"We need to prepare for the worst-case scenario, so we are evacuating people along those coastal communities as quickly as possible," she said.
"This window of opportunity to leave is drastically closing. This is about your safety."
She said the farming region had never experienced a storm stronger than Category 2.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull echoed the Premier's appeal and said those who had received an official evacuation order must leave immediately.
Defence Force personnel were standing ready to respond to the looming crisis, Turnbull said.
The latest tracking map issued by the Bureau of Meteorology last night suggested Debbie would weaken to a Category 2 at 2pm today after it passes Bowen and moves inland near Townsville.
It will then head slightly southwest and become a Category 1 in the early hours of tomorrow, the bureau predicts.
The Queensland Fire and Emergency Services said last night that emergency alerts for a storm surge had been issued for areas including North and South Pioneer, Louisa Creek, Dunrock, Freshwater Point and Seaforth.
Police said the cyclone had already contributed to one death after a 31-year-old tourist died in a car crash near Proserpine.
In Townsville, wind speeds are expected to match those recorded when the region's last severe cyclone, Yasi, struck six years ago.
An extra 25 paramedics have been deployed to the danger zone and about 600 hospital beds have been cleared.
Townsville airport has been closed, as have more than 100 north Queensland schools.
In Bowen, Jenny Townsend has ordered guests to leave her beachside caravan park because she doesn't want to be responsible for any deaths.
But she's going to stay put despite her business and home being under a Red Zone evacuation order.
"I've been here for 20 years and quite a few cyclones have come through and we've never had any damage at all apart from trees down," she said yesterday.
But she added: "We've never had a direct hit before and we've never had a Category 4."
The region's farmers were also bracing for potential devastation to crops, with the Bowen area accounting for more than 90 per cent of Australian tomatoes and 95 per cent of capsicum for consumption in September and October.