SYDNEY - A cyclone packing winds of up to 275 kilometres an hour swept towards Australia's Great Barrier Reef coast Friday, forcing thousands of people to hunker down as authorities warned of potential devastation.
Cyclone Ita, while downgraded from a maximum level five to a category four storm, was expected to bring fierce gales when it hits north of Cooktown, some 1,600 kilometres from Brisbane, late Friday.
"Anything over 80 kilometres (per hour) is dangerous," Cook Shire mayor Peter Scott told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
"Anything over 80K will put a piece of tin through you and chop your head off, it will lift roofs off, it will make severe damage so the best place to be is staying inside," he said.
Scott said that in the view of one senior police officer in the area, "the Cooktown you see today won't be here tomorrow".
Queensland Premier Campbell Newman warned that homes built prior to 1985 when new building regulations were enacted may not withstand the impact of the storm, and urged residents to head to local cyclone shelters.
Ita sat some 105 kilometres northeast of Cooktown, a coastal community of 2,400 people, shortly before 0800 GMT.
A warning zone extended from Coen in the far north to Innisfail in the south, taking in Cooktown and the Great Barrier Reef tourist hubs of Port Douglas and Cairns.
"This is an extreme event and it has the possibility to take lives and the potential to severely damage property in north Queensland, " warned Queensland's Emergency Services Minister Jack Dempsey.
Tropical storms are common in northeast Australia. This one is stronger but not as widespread as the monster Cyclone Yasi system which tore through the region just over three years ago, ripping homes from their foundations and devastating crops.
"Basically this is a very serious cyclone," Andrew Tupper from the Bureau of Meteorology told the ABC. "It's very compact, it's an intense system."