Key Points:

    • Cyclone made landfall at Airlie Beach at 3.15pm NZ time
    • Winds up to 230km/h smashed the coast
    • Cyclone downgraded to Category 3
    • Predicted to move south west over next 12-18 hours
    • Residents advised to stay inside

Cyclone Debbie is continuing to pummel north Queenland, leaving behind a path of destruction at normally idyllic locations including Airlie Beach and Hamilton Island.

The Category 3 system made landfall shortly after 1pm near Bowen, where it was described by Premier Annastacia Paluszczuk 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 the cyclone's most destructive zone impacted the Whitsunday Islands and mainland towns, sending residents into a panic before making its way further inland.

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Strong winds and rain lash Airlie Beach. Photo / AAP
Strong winds and rain lash Airlie Beach. Photo / AAP

More than 45,000 homes are without power throughout the impact zone and authorities have warned they will not be able to render assistance until Wednesday at the earliest. The Insurance Council of Queensland has already declared the storm a "catastrophe".

The storm was downgraded from Category 4 to Category 3 shortly before 4pm but Premier Palaszczuk begged residents to "stay inside". Queensland Police Commissioner Ian Stewart said one person was "hurt badly" when a collapsing wall fell on him at Proserpine. He was in a stable condition in hospital.

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.

"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."

According to the Bureau of Meteorology's latest warning, issued at 1pm Queensland time (2pm AEDT), the system is beginning to make landfall on mainland coast between Bowen and Airlie Beach with wind gusts potentially reaching 270km/h near the centre.

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.

Help unlikely until Wednesday

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 high-level category four system is 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.

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".

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," Turnbull said.

Sea foam whipped up from Cyclone Debbie in Queensland. Photo / Facebook
Sea foam whipped up from Cyclone Debbie in Queensland. Photo / Facebook

Airlie Beach in the eye of the storm

News.com.au 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.

Damage at the Reef View Hotel in Hamilton Island, Queensland. Photo / Facebook
Damage at the Reef View Hotel in Hamilton Island, Queensland. Photo / Facebook

"Destruction" on Hamilton Island

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

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

The Category 4 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 news.com.au 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."

Cyclone Debbie makes landfall at Catseye beach, Hamilton Island. Photo / @RevellNorquay Twitter
Cyclone Debbie makes landfall at Catseye beach, Hamilton Island. Photo / @RevellNorquay Twitter

The slow-moving cyclone was previously expected to make landfall on the mainland by 2pm AEST, but came a lot quicker as the cyclone picks up speed - heading southwest at 12km/h at the time of landfall.

"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 over the next 12 to 24 hours," BOM's alert read.

"The cyclone is beginning to make landfall on the mainland between Bowen and Airlie Beach, and will move gradually inland through this afternoon and evening. As the system moves inland, the peak winds near the centre will begin to weaken."

At nearby Proserpine, residents have reported "horrifying" destruction, saying several roofs had been ripped from homes.

Local woman Sue told ABC radio her neighbour's roof had smashed into her home's side window letting rain and heavy debris into the house.

"The doors are shaking and we've got venetian drapes flying out the window," she said.

"I've lived her my whole life and this is the first time I've had damage like this.

"I can't believe how long it's taking, it's really horrible... I think because of the damage with out house that's what's so horrifying."

North Queensland's Whitsunday Islands were taken into in the grip of the Category 4 cyclone's power as the tropical system brought destructive winds of up to 270km/h hours earlier.

"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.

Source: @sammyjo_official / @robkiddaus / Aidtaskers

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.

Imminent destruction has transformed the usually buzzing streets and beaches of the state's tourist hot spots into ghost towns as residents and visitors hole up in their houses seeking safety.

Showing images of steel awnings tearing away from shopfronts, Nine reported entire roofs had been ripped from buildings and debris was flying through the air at Airlie Beach.

Whitsundays 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."

Premier Palaszczuk has warned residents and visitors the cyclone will be "absolutely destructive".

"It's going to be a really tough time, a really harrowing time for thousands of families in the path of Cyclone Debbie," she said.

Cyclone Debbie was officially upgraded to a Category 4 at 8pm Monday night as Airlie Beach lost power and Hamilton Island copped 178km/h wind gusts.

A striking warning from the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services followed.

QFES issued an alert last night to "bunker down", as teams would have limited capacity to respond until the cyclone passed.

It said people should prepare now by turning off their electricity, gas and water as well as unplugging all appliances.

"Shelter in the strongest room of your house," and "keep your emergency kit close by", emergency services warned.

Tourists cop a battering

Tourists on Hamilton Island are weathering the worst of Cyclone Debbie as the Category 4 cyclone passes over the normally idyllic tropical paradise. The eye of the storm has hit the Whitsundays and there are reports of roofs off buildings in some parts.

Helena Mo who is holidaying on the island said the wind started to get "pretty bad" around 1am but the worst came after 4am.

"I have to admit it's been difficult to get some sleep, even with the knowledge that we are staying in a very secure hotel," she told AAP. "I have never heard gusts of wind howl this loud and this intense before."

"You can't help but worry about what's going to happen next."

She said she and her boyfriend moved a mattress into the bathroom around midnight, but so far they had been able to stay in the main part of their room at the Reef View Hotel.

"The doors and windows in this hotel have been pretty sturdy and cyclone proof," she said.

Cyclone Debbie has come within five kilometres an hour of being declared a Category Five storm as it bears down on the Queensland coast. Source: Sky News

Towns in "complete lockdown"

Several areas including Airlie Beach and Bowen were in "complete lockdown" on Tuesday morning.

Residents has been warned to take shelter in their homes rather than evacuate as road including the Bruce Highway close as the cyclone moves in.

Emergency services will also be unable to reach the areas.

"The best place to be is in a safe place inside your home," Palaszczuk said. "Stay indoors for most of today."

The cyclone was officially upgraded to a Category 4 at 8pm.

As of 5.30am, Debbie was about 70km northeast of Hamilton Island.

Mass evacuations are in place as the state braces for what Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk called "a monster of a cyclone".

Nearly 120 schools and more than 200 childcare centres were closed last night in anticipation of the storm hitting the mainland. Trains to and from Townsville as well as some flights have been cancelled.

More than 30 specialised energy trucks travelled to north Queensland to help restore power after lights went out at Airlie Beach about 10.30pm.

Elective surgeries have also been cancelled.

While residents and visitors bunker down, some local services have been accused of ripping people off in the face of disaster.

News.com.au has seen now removed offers from a Mackay transport provider charging up to $300 per person for a ride from the affected towns to Rockhampton further south.

Hotel guests on Hamilton Island and surrounding tourists spots have complained about being charged up to $400 for a night's emergency accommodation when they have no choice but to stay on the luxury properties.

Tropical Cyclone Debbie along the Queensland coast. Photo / NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team
Tropical Cyclone Debbie along the Queensland coast. Photo / NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team

"The winf is frightengly loud"

Despite the imminent danger, North Queenslanders are remaining largely calm and responding to the threat in the most Queensland way possible.

Bowen local Bob Morton, who has lived in the area for 40 years, was spotted by Sunrise reporter Edwina Bartholomew on a barefoot morning stroll on Tuesday.

"We've battened everything down ... just preparing and getting everything ready," he said.
"Everybody sticks together and try to help each other out. We want to know where the grog it. We do try and keep sober anyhow."

Meanwhile, a woman on Hamilton Island just off the coast tweeted that the sound of the wind and bashing doors was like an intruder.

Category 5 not ruled out

The cyclone is designated a Category Four "severe" tropical cyclone with sustained winds up to 250hm/h.

The Bureau of Meteorology has not ruled out the storm intensifying even further as it moves west towards Bowen.

As of 3am, the cyclone was approaching the Whitsunday Islands.

It is forecast to make landfall between Ayr and Midge Point late this morning.

The Bureau of Meteorology has warned of the cyclone's "very destructive core", with wind gusts "potentially to 260km/h near the centre".

"Destructive winds" with gusts over 125km/h are occurring about the Whitsunday Islands, and will extend further to the exposed coast and islands between Ayr and Mackay later this morning, according to the BOM.

Coastal towns from Lucinda to St Lawrence will be affected, including Townsville, Mackay and the Whitsunday Islands, as well as the inland centres of Charters Towers and Mount Coolon.

A palm tree is fallen at Airlie Beach. Photo / AAP
A palm tree is fallen at Airlie Beach. Photo / AAP

Residents between Ayr and St Lawrence are warned of a dangerous storm tide as the cyclone crosses the coast late this morning.

"The sea is likely to rise steadily up to a level well above the normal tide, with damaging waves and flooding of some low-lying areas close to the shoreline," the bureau said in a statement.

"Large waves may also develop along the beachfront.

"People living in areas likely to be affected by this flooding should take measures to protect their property as much as possible and be prepared to follow instructions regarding evacuation of the area if advised to do so by the authorities."