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Get out now. Don't bother to pack your bags. Just gather your family and leave.

That's the grave directive Premier Anna Bligh has made to people in low-lying parts of north Queensland under direct threat from monster Cyclone Yasi.

Ms Bligh says Australia's populated coast has never seen a threat on the scale of Yasi, now a category five system expected to make landfall between Cairns and Cardwell about 10pm tonight (1am Thursday NZT).

Wind gusts of up to 300km/h will accompany a devastating sea surge into low-lying areas along the north Queensland coast, with landfall expected to come just an hour after high tide hits about 9pm (midnight NZT).

Locations to the south of the landfall site are most at risk of storm surges.

The storm front is more than 500 kilometres wide and Yasi is so strong, it could reach far inland before it significantly loses power.

Click here for a live graphic of Yasi's progress.

Ms Bligh said people only had until about midday (3pm NZT) to get out of high risk areas and move to safer locations to wait out the tempest.

SMS alerts are being sent to people in the highest risk locations telling them to get out now.

"I cannot say in strong enough terms, you have to take this window of opportunity to evacuate," Ms Bligh told reporters about 9am local time.

"It will close within the next three hours.

"Do not bother to pack bags, just grab each other and get to a place of safety.

"People are irreplaceable."

The height of the tidal surge will depend on local geography across the region and the exact timing of Yasi's landfall in relation to the tide.

"We are probably, the worst case scenario, above the four-metre mark, but in most places more than two metres," she said.

Bligh says the latest advice she has is that Yasi will make landfall between Innisfail and Cardwell, and will be the worst to cross the coast since 1918.

"The bureau believes this location is within a 30km degree of accuracy," Ms Bligh told reporters about 11.30am (2.30pm NZT).

Authorities have told people in the danger zone to prepare a "safe room" with mattresses, pillows, a radio, food and water supplies.

State Disaster Coordinator Ian Stewart said the safest part of most modern homes was the bathroom or toilet.

"They should be preparing themselves for the fact that the roofs of their houses may lift off but that does not make the structure or the framework of the house any less sound," Mr Stewart told reporters.

"They get wet but it is far more dangerous to panic and run out of the house than to stay bunkered down in that area and simply get a bit wet."

He said warned emergency services would not be able to respond until about midday on Thursday, due to the conditions.

"... people have to understand that they need to become first responders themselves to ensure the safety of their family, themselves and their neighbours."

Cairns Mayor Val Schier has warned the city could see Cyclone Tracy-like scenes when Yasi hits, referring to the deadly cyclone that devastated Darwin on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in 1974.

"We look to what happened with Cyclone Tracy where people ended up under mattresses in bathrooms and that may be the situation here ..." she told ABC TV.

She said Cairns could expect horrific winds for 10 hours either side of the time of landfall, and it would be a terrifying event for residents.

In Townsville, more than 10,000 homes are at risk of inundation if Yasi comes in around the high tide, the city's disaster management group deputy chairman Dale Last told AAP.

"We're expecting category three cyclonic conditions by this afternoon," he said.

Mr Last said authorities feared the surge could be 2.9 metres on top of a very high tide of about 4.1 metres, a level that would be devastating for Townsville.

At Innisfail, about 90km south of Cairns, where Cyclone Larry hit with fury in 2006, mandatory mass evacuations are in full swing.

More than 10,000 people in low-lying areas around Innisfail have been evacuated

Cassowary Coast Mayor Bill Shannon said residents knew they were facing a monster, with Innisfail and surrounds at risk of a storm surge.

"People have been co-operating (with evacuation orders) ... police are telling people it's mandatory and that's enough for most people ..." he told the ABC.

About 9,500 people had taken cover at evacuation centres by this afternoon, Bligh said.

Police began ordering people off the streets of Cairns early this morning.

"Everyone's gotta go now," one officer told pedestrians strolling near the waterfront. "The water is coming NOW."

Those who decided to weather the storm from their homes spent Wednesday morning taping up windows, stacking sandbags and trying to stay calm as the massive storm front edged closer.

"Just another day in paradise!" Andy Gates quipped as he strolled into a Cairns cafe packed with residents hurrying to grab breakfast before the winds forced them inside. The 50-year-old airport maintenance technician was planning to ride out the storm along with dozens of friends and family members at his home, a sturdy cinder block house that stands high on a hill.

Gates, like many Queenslanders, has lived through more than a few storms. But Yasi looked particularly ominous, he said.

"I normally don't get worried, but this one is going to be huge," he said.
"I reckon there's going to be a lot of fatalities. They're all painting a pretty grim picture."

Cairns residents Jane Alcorn and Alan Buckingham filled a basket with food and trash bags at a grocery store buzzing with locals picking up last-minute essentials this morning. The couple said the winds would likely tear the roof off their apartment complex, but still planned to take shelter in their garage with other tenants.

Buckingham, who is from the UK and has never experienced a cyclone before, admitted he was having some trouble keeping his nerves in check.

"Where do you run to?" asked Buckingham, 48. "You can't run inland and outpace it. ... You gotta sit it out."

Alcorn, a 42-year-old veteran of Queensland storms, said she had already banned those sheltering with them from panicking during the storm.

"There's no crying, no hysterics," she said. "It's going to be loud, it's going to be scary. But we've got each other."

Authorities expect to have a better idea of the landfall site with updated modelling due at 5pm local time (8pm NZT) on Wednesday.

But even areas outside of the immediate danger zone could suffer in other ways.

Optus and Telstra are preparing for transmission towers to be brought down, wiping out telecommunications in whole regions, Ms Bligh said.

"They have located additional technicians, generators and a satellite system in Mackay to transport quickly," she said.

Police say driving will become impossible later today and Cairns and Townsville airports have now closed.

Authorities are meeting with major retailers on how to re-stock stores and a portable hospital has been set up at Townsville with another in Darwin on stand-by.

Ms Bligh said hundreds of medical and emergency personnel, tradespeople as well as the Australian Defence Force, were in the region and ready to respond to the cyclone.

"I want to reassure people that we are not only working at the moment on preparing for this event, we have a solid team of people preparing right now to be there for the aftermath of this event," she said.

Queensland had already received offers of help from all over the world, she said.

"You will not be going through this alone," she said.

"We stand ready, we stand beside you and for the next day, you are in the thoughts of every single Australian."

300km/h Wind speeds expected to strike mainland

250,000 Residents living in most at-risk areas

500 kilometres Width of storm front

9,500 in evacuation centres

5 Cyclone category rating - went up from 4 this morning

- AAP, AP, NZ Herald staff