Storm expected to slam into coast of Queensland tomorrow, affecting communities already saturated from months of floodingA weather satellite image obtained from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows tropical cyclone Yasi passing the Solomon Islands while approaching the coast of Australia Photograph: Ho/Reuters
Authorities have scrambled to airlift hospital patients from the path of a cyclone roaring toward waterlogged north-eastern Australia and urged low-lying communities to evacuate because of potentially deadly flash floods.
Cyclone Yasi was expected to slam into the coast of Queensland state on Wednesday as a Category 4 storm and dump up to 3ft (1 meter) of rain on communities already saturated from months of flooding.
"This storm is huge and it is life-threatening," Queensland premier Anna Bligh said. "I know many of us will feel that Queensland has already borne about as much as we can bear when it comes to disasters and storms, but more is being asked of us and I am confident that we are able to rise to this next challenge."
Yasi was barrelling towards the Queensland state coast as a strong Category 3 storm with winds up to 137 mph (220 kph), but was expected to turn into a Category 4 storm with wind gusts up to 155mph (250km/h) by Wednesday.
Bligh said the military would airlift 250 patients from the waterfont Cairns Base and Cairns Private hospitals to Brisbane, the state capital.
Although there were no mandatory evacuation orders yet, residents in waterfront and low-lying areas from the cities of Cairns to Townsville were being advised to leave.
Ian Stewart, the state's disaster co-ordinator, said many people were deciding on their own to evacuate and that he would discuss with mayors whether forced evacuations were needed.
"In reality, we would like people to get as far south as possible, as quickly as possible, without of course breaking the rules," he told reporters.
Another storm, Cyclone Anthony, hit Queensland early yesterday but quickly weakened and did little more than uproot some trees and damage power lines.
Queensland has already suffered flooding since heavy rains started in November. The floodwaters killed 35 people, damaged or destroyed 30,000 homes and businesses and left Brisbane under water for days.
Yasi is expected to strike farther north, sparing Brisbane and other towns that suffered the worst of the recent flooding. Still, Bligh said the storm's path could change, and residents up and down the coast needed to prepare.
"We could see very powerful flash flooding that will be dangerous and potentially deadly," said Bligh, who described the storm as one of the largest and most significant cyclones the state has ever seen.
Hamilton Island off Queensland began evacuating some tourists yesterday and other resort islands were considering doing the same, Bligh said. Some nursing homes along the coast were evacuating, and residents of low-lying areas were urged to leave their homes until the storm has passed.
"We're telling anyone in the low-lying areas they need to be moving today and find another place to go to," said Val Schier, mayor of the northern Queensland city of Cairns.
Stewart said residents should be prepared with flashlights, food and water.
"Please make no mistake: this storm is a deadly event," Stewart said. "Now is the time to act."