Key Points:

  • Cyclone Debbie has now made landfall in eastern Australia
  • Debbie has been downgraded to a category 3 cyclone
  • Debbie hit the Whitsunday Islands, with reports of roofs being blown off
  • It has been described as a "one in 100 year event"
  • The cyclone is the worst to hit Queensland since Yasi six years ago
  • 34,000 people are said to be without power

Cyclone Debbie is doing her worst in North Queensland as the category 3 system begins to make landfall on the mainland between Airlie Beach and Bowen.

Residents in the rural town of Bowen, predicted to be "ground zero" for the devastating weather event, are beginning to feel the effects of the system Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has described as "equivalent to a one in 100 year event".

Roofs have been ripped from buildings, including the Bowen Bowls Club, and flying debris has begun to cause damage as cyclone's most destructive zone impacted the Whitsunday Islands and mainland towns including Airlie Beach, sending residents into a panic before making its way further inland.


More than 45,000 homes are without power throughout the impact zone and the Insurance Council of Queensland has already declared the story a "catastrophe".

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk begged residents to "stay inside" and Queensland Police Commissioner Ian Stewart said one person was "hurt badly" when a collapsing wall fell on him at Proserpine.

Premier Palaszczuk said people should not leave their homes.

"Once this eye is passing over people will feel the opportunity to go out and have a look and they should not do that," she told a press conference shortly after 3pm (local time).

"They need to remain in place ... This is a dangerous cyclone. People must stay indoors. Please do not go outside and please contact the ambulance or emergency services."

After the coastal town was lashed by destructive winds and sheeting rain the storm has significantly calmed over Airlie Beach as the eye of the storm reaches the town before the chaos begins again.

A video published by ABC journalist Jonathan Hair from an Airlie Beach apartment shows a fan blowing in the wind that had been ripped from the ceiling and large pieces of debris being dragged by harsh winds across the building's balcony during the worst of the eye wall's impact.

While there is even more destruction to come, residents in the path of Cyclone Debbie could be waiting until Wednesday for emergency help as the slow-moving storm keeps the region in lockdown.

Northern region SES manager Dale Camp said strong winds are expected to continue into the evening.

The category 3 system was not expected to weaken to a tropical low until midday on Wednesday.

"It's a very slow-moving cyclone, so we're talking anywhere between six and 14 hours until it's completely over in each location," he said. "So that puts it well into this evening, and that's the problem, everyone is going to have to stay in their house all day, and then stay there all night as well.

Mr Camp said poor light in the evening will hamper any clean-up efforts. "We have to wait for that wind to die down before we move around, and if it's at night time it makes it very difficult to see things like floodwaters, so they'll probably be waiting until first light tomorrow," he said.

Speaking in Parliament in Canberra, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the federal and Queensland governments had "activated the disaster response plan".

Mr Turnbull told parliament the Australian Defence Force had set up a joint task force and was ready to deploy assets to the affected areas.

Brigadier Chris Field, who played a key role in the 2011 flood reconstruction in Queensland, has been appointed recovery co-ordinator.

"There's 1000 people deployed or on standby to assist, and we thank them for their courage, commitment and selfless service," Mr Turnbull said.

AIRLIE BEACH IN THE EYE OF THE STORM reporter Emma Reynolds was in a hotel about a kilometre away from the beachfront but still in ankle deep in water as the eye wall hit.

"The wind is really ferocious, really intense now," she said. "It's roaring like a fighter jet.

"We can't see the water at all. The sky is completely misted with sheets of rain flying across and branches are being ripped from the trees.

"We've heard that the wind is so strong people can barely stand up at the marina."

She said hotel guests, many of them evacuated local families with children, were beginning to panic about the loss of power and communications. There are also questions about how long supplies will last.

"People are starting to get a bit stir crazy... We definitely feel quite isolated."

"We have a reasonable amount of bottled water and some food but not enough for days and days. We were told to fill up the bathtubs for extra drinking water, but it just keeps draining away."

The mist at Airlie Beach has cleared enough for people to see the astonishing sight of a boat on the water being thrown about in "huge waves".

Reynolds said: "I've got no idea whether it's emergency services or who it is but it looks terrifying - anyone on there would be very ill."

Hotel guests have been told the cyclone's eye could take up to three hours to pass over them.

"And then it is supposed to get much worse."

Earlier she reported that the wind was "frighteningly loud", even at 2am Queensland time.
"We can hear it howling through the trees and frequent banging sounds.".

"Everyone is trying to get some rest but the noise and worry makes it difficult, as well as the fact we know we may need to move down to our hotel's underground carpark at some point.

"The power went out just before 10.30pm so we've been using torches and trying to conserve mobile phone battery as we don't know what's coming next.

Residents on Hamilton Island have reported winds "like freight trains" as the cyclone's "very destructive core" passes through the popular holiday spot.

Right in the thick of it..#cyclonedebbie #whitsundays #hamiltonisland

A post shared by Mark Mckeown (@markdmckeown) on

At the island's airport wind gusts up to 263km/h were recorded before dropping to 213km/h.

The cyclone is the worst the state has seen in at least six years.

David, a caller to Nine's Today who is staying on the resort island, said the scenes outside were "like world war three" as he witnessed a tree fall through the roof of a nearby villa.

"I am standing, actually, on the toilet looking out the tiny little window and villa number 42 has copped it, a massive tree has gone through the side of the roof," he said.

"The winds are insane. I can't imagine it getting any worse than this. All the trees are destroyed. It looks like world war three to be honest outside."

Lissa Morris has lived on Hamilton Island for 14 years and has had a house on the island for almost 30. She spoke to from her home in the centre of the cyclone's path.

"It's massive and so frightening. It's right on top of us now and it's stalled with winds in excess of 200km/h," she said.

"It is so noisy, it's like half a dozen 747 jets coming through. It's incredibly loud through the windows. Whether the house will stand a Category 5 which they are predicting, I don't know."

Steel awnings flap in the winds brought by Cyclone Debbie at Airlie Beach on the North Queensland coast. Photo / Channel
Steel awnings flap in the winds brought by Cyclone Debbie at Airlie Beach on the North Queensland coast. Photo / Channel

The Bureau of Meteorology's warned the eye wall of the cyclone was passing the Whitsunday Islands and the mainland coast. The town of Bowen will face the brunt of the Debbie's destruction.

The slow-moving cyclone was expected to make landfall on the mainland by 2pm AEST (4pm NZT), but the BOM has revised that as the cyclone picks up speed - at 9km/h at the time of the latest update.

"While small temporary variations in the track have been observed, as happens with all cyclones, the system is still forecast to move slowly west-southwest and make landfall on the mainland between Bowen and Airlie Beach around midday or early this afternoon," the alert read.

North Queensland is already in the grip of the cyclone's power as the tropical system threatens to reach Category 5 status bringing with it destructive winds of up to 270km/h.

"It's just like freight trains coming through left and right," a Hamilton Island resident told ABC. "The trees are going wild. The place is just shaking continuously."

The slow-moving cyclone is nearing landfall, but threatens to hang around for up to 18 hours before it passes.

The Bureau warned between 150mm to 500mm of rain could fall today and river flooding will likely follow.

Storm surge is expected to lead to waves of up to 8 metres on the Mackay coastline, which is already being lashed as the cyclone nears landfall.

Whitsunday Mayor Andrew Wilcox said extreme winds were making trees look like they were dancing.

"Outside it is just pouring horizontally, the rain is falling sideways, the trees look like they're in a disco and it hasn't even arrived yet," he told AAP. "It's still 100 kilometres away and the wind is getting very strong... we've got plenty of places to hide in the house if it gets worse."

Mackay Regional Council published a series of maps on Facebook showing areas where people should "prepare and act" for possible inundation.

"Emergency alerts have been sent via SMS for residents in the green, red and orange zones in Mackay and associated beaches to "prepare and act" for possible inundation Monday night and Tuesday morning. If you are in these areas, be prepared to evacuate if needed," the council said.

An unprecedented mass evacuation is being carried out at the last minute in the Queensland town of Mackay as "monster" Cyclone Debbie gains intensity and threatens to cause widespread destruction in conjunction with a high tide.

QLD premier Annastacia Palaszczuk warned Queenslanders to brace themselves: "This is going to be a monster of a cyclone."

About 25,000 residents in low-lying areas of Mackay were ordered to evacuate their homes immediately amid fears of massive storm surges as a result of the cyclone.

"This is probably the largest evacuation we've ever had to do," Palaszczuk told Ten News.

The message was get out. Now.

"We are asking people that can move out of those low-lying areas that are depicted on the local maps on the council website to move now," QLD Police commissioner Ian Stewart said he said.

"Don't wait until tomorrow because you will not be able to move probably past midnight tonight ... assist family members and the vulnerable to move."

Stewart said there were grave concerns for the coastal town because it is a "low-lying" area that is likely to be affected by a 0.8-2.5m storm surge, caused by a dangerous combination of a category four cyclone and high tide.

Stewart said police were asking people "in safer areas to open their houses and hearts to their friends".

"We don't want to see any tragedies as a result of this storm," he said.

QLD Premier Palaszczuk said it was "very clear the time to move is now".

"This is a severe weather system," she said.