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More than a million people are hunkered down as Cyclone Yasi, the size of the United States begins lashing the Queensland coast packing power of unprecedented ferocity - the likes of which hasn't been seen since 1918.

Even before it was due to make landfall between Innisfail and Cardwell about 11pm (AEST) tonight (2am Thursday NZT), Yasi had caused 9.5m swells to surge near Townsville and lashed the coast with winds gusting well above 100kmh.

As at 1.30am NZ Time, some 60,000 homes in north Queensland had lost all power.

At its core, the cyclone already has winds of 295km/h that have knocked out weather monitoring equipment on Willis Island, off Cairns, and was bringing down trees at Ayr, near Townsville, on Wednesday morning.

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

Yasi will cross the coast on the high tide, meaning a storm surge that will accompany it will be devastating for low-lying areas.

At Cardwell it could build to seven metres, and at Townsville up to three metres.

Click here for a live-streaming web cam of wind levels in Townsville.

Yasi's size also means there will be effects a long way inland, with the storm to maintain category three force as it passes over Georgetown - some 300km inland - at 9am tomorrow (midday NZT).

Premier Anna Bligh said the last time a cyclone of this magnitude crossed the coast was in 1918.

"This impact is likely to be more life threatening than any experienced during recent generations," she told reporters in Brisbane.

"This is an event that we have no recent experience of."

There has been a last-minute rush at evacuation centres from Cairns to Townsville.

Evacuation centres in and around Cairns are full, and the council is telling people they must take shelter in homes and accommodation in safe areas.

Estimates of the size of the Cyclone put as covering the entire continental United States.

Ms Bligh said there was little time left to get to safety.

"I said this morning the window (of opportunity) was still open and closing," she told reporters at 11.30am (AEST).

"There is still a little crack of light there and there is still some last minute opportunities.

"People who are in any of those areas that might experience flooding should be looking at their absolutely last chance."

Authorities are assuring Queenslanders the flood-weary state is ready for the disaster, with hundreds of emergency services and defence personnel laying in wait.

They won't be able to help people while the storm is active, however, so people sticking out the emergency at home are urged to be as self-sufficient as possible.

State Disaster Co-ordinator Ian Stewart said authorities were as prepared as they could be.

"There will never be enough resources that we can get in there as quickly as they need to," he said.

"But the reality is we have planned for as many as humanly possible to go in straight after this, the right types of resources."

Authorities have even planned for the possibility they will need offshore bases, with the navy prepared to bring ships to the coast if necessary, as they did during the response to the 2004 Asian tsunami.

The Bureau of Meteorology warning could hardly be stronger, with the service reinforcing the cyclone's lethal force.

"Severe Tropical Cyclone Yasi is a large and very powerful tropical cyclone and poses an extremely serious threat to life and property within the warning area, especially between Cairns and Townsville," it says.

"This impact is likely to be more life threatening than any experienced in recent generations."

Evacuation centres full

An extended family of 20 waits outside a packed Cairns evacuation centre.

But there's no room for them inside.

The Woree State High School shelter opened its doors at 9am.

By 10.30am, the doors were closed to evacuees.

The Kris family waits for a bus to another centre, hoping the situation there will be different.

One of the young boys is full of bravado, saying he's not scared. But his mum, Anna, quickly corrects him: "A little scared."

"The fear is just below the belt and were trying to keep it there," she told AAP.

Just before 1pm (4pm NZT), the Cairns Regional Council says there's no more room at any of the evacuation centres set up in and around the city.

"All evacuation centres are full and residents are urged to stay where they are now for the next 24 hours," the council says in a red alert to media organisations.

Inside the Woree school's sport complex, hundreds of people are setting up makeshift beds, some relying on nothing but towels for comfort.

Arthur Farrow is lying down, connected to a respirator. He has emphysema.

His wife, Lilly, has packed two oxygen tanks - more than 20 hours' worth - to get him through.

"We had to come here, we weren't too worried about the house, but about Arthur's health," she says.

"When they said it was a category five, it sent shivers down my spine."

Valentina Ferro is nursing her four-week-old baby.

Police told her to get out of her Parramatta apartment, which backs on to a creek.

"We thought our apartment would get flooded and the roof would come off. I wouldn't be surprised," she says.

Tracey Forde is in the centre with her five kids. She says they're scared.

Even though she's lived through half a dozen cyclones, the sheer size and strength of Yasi means it's a different story this time.

"It's scary. You just don't know what's going to happen," she says.

"You just hope we're going to be here in two days' time."

The Red Cross is aiding efforts at the shelter, but is worried there's not enough food.

There is just half a pallet of food and one-and-a-half pallets of water.

"There's very little, but we're hoping there's enough," Queensland Fire and Rescue Service station officer Russell Thompson says.

Cairns shopping centre takes in 2500 Yasi evacuees

About 2500 people are crammed into one of Cairns' shopping centres which has become an evacuation centre. Food shortages, a power black out and a scary night ahead are feared as Cyclone Yasi barrels towards north Queensland.

Row upon row of people are lying in the food court of the Earlville Shopping Centre, in an area of the mall designated by owners, Stockland, as the safest to ride out Category 5 cyclones, with the expectation of winds topping 290km/hr.

Centre manager Paul Kelsey said they were only asked to open their doors to evacuees on Tuesday afternoon, and the thousands that have sought refuge have caught them off guard.

He said the biggest task underway is to co-ordinate food.

"We've all been taken a bit by surprise," Mr Kelsey told AAP.

"What we're actually trying to do now is feed people."

Only two of the centre's fast-food restaurants agreed to open, and lines were stretching more than 40 people deep.

Some hungry, or under-prepared, evacuees became quite cunning when Red Cross food parcels started being handed out.

The 50-strong crowd rushed and swarmed the volunteers slightly nudging each other to get their hands on food.

Police and security quickly moved in to bring law and order, and soon the ravenous crowd agreed to form two lines.

Only two pallets of food had been delivered for the evacuees by early Wednesday afternoon, Mr Kelsey said.

Woolworths has agreed to supply two meals per evacuee and it is hoped a similar agreement will be put in place with Coles.

Cairns City Council Mayor Val Schier said more food is on the way.

"I'm confident there will be enough food," she told AAP.

The defence force has 5000 ration packs, which will be distributed to the evacuation centres by Thursday morning.

Power is expected to be lost in the Earlville shopping centre, descending the area into a ghostly darkness as the cyclone rages during the night.

Sharni Neville said she's expecting the mood to turn to fear when the lights go out.

"Just the darkness and the noise," she told AAP.

She and her family evacuated their Edmonton, besser-block house at 8am (11am NZT).

"We just weren't confident at home," she said.

"It went through Cyclone Larry, so I'm not sure what was weakened, plus there's nowhere to hide in the house."

Ms Neville said the boredom is setting in and that has the potential to cause trouble, no matter how amusing.

She said one adventurous boy climbed into a very large toy-dispensing machine, the one you use the claw to win the prize.

As soon as the boy started celebrating his feat - from within the machine - police once again descended and rained on his parade.

"It was about 10 minutes of entertainment," Ms Neville said.