NEWS

Defence Force On Standby As Cyclone Debbie Continues To Wreak Havoc

'There is a lot of flying furniture and flying gutters.'

28/03/2017 6:55 AM AEDT | Updated 28/03/2017 11:02 PM AEDT

Cyclone Debbie is continuing to wreak havoc in Bowen, Proserpine, Mackay and Airlie Beach along the north Queensland coast, as the Australian Defence Force prepares to deploy significant resources to recovery efforts.

The severe tropical cyclone, which made landfall around 1pm (AEDT) Tuesday, is now a Category 2 after it crossed the coastline as a Category 4 and has since been twice downgraded. It continued to thrash affected areas as it slowly moved inland, with wind gusts of up to 263km/h.

At least 50,000 people were without power on Tuesday evening, mostly from the Mackay region, while reports emerged of roofs lifting off buildings, walls being ripped away and large trees falling onto buildings and cars. One man was seriously injured in Proserpine when a wall collapsed and authorities are expecting more calls for help to come in from injured residents in the coming hours and days.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk warned residents not to venture outside to inspect the damage yet as the cyclone was still "very dangerous".

"This is a catastrophic event. We are going to see severe structural damage, especially in parts of Airlie Beach, Proserpine and the southern ends of Bowen," she told The Project. "We have little small dotted communities in there as well. We are praying tonight that everyone is going to be safe and sound and we need to get our Emergency Services personnel out there to assist as soon as they possibly can when we see the light of day tomorrow morning."

Cyclone Debbie: Key Points

  • Debbie made landfall near Airlie Beach just after 1pm AEDT;
  • It now has sustained winds of 155km/h in very destructive core, with gusts up to 220km/h;
  • The cyclone's very destructive eye wall is 50km wide;
  • Currently moving southwest at a slow 13km/h;
  • Bowen, Airlie Beach and Mackay face brunt of the Category 2 system
  • Flash flooding warnings in place for low-lying regions;
  • Dangerous winds and rain to continue for 18 hours

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the Government was committed to assisting to relief efforts -- from committing extra resources to applying pressure on insurance companies.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull confirmed the Defence Force would deployed to the cyclone-hit regions to restore infrastructure and roads once it is safe to do so. The Prime Minister further told the ABC the government would urge insurance companies and banks "to be compassionate, considerate and to support the people of North Queensland in the wake of the storm".

"At this stage it's not possible to say how much damage has occurred. It's a very dangerous storm, a very strong storm as you know. There will be damage. But we won't be able to assess that until tomorrow," Turnbull said.

According to the Minister for Justice Michael Keenan and the Queensland Minister for Police, Fire and Emergency Services Mark Ryan eight local government areas have so far been impacted by Cyclone Debbie.

"Our number one concern remains the safety of those in the cyclone's path. I urge people to continue to exercise extreme caution, avoid risks and stay off the road. If it's flooded- forget it," Mr Keenan said.

Minister Ryan said counter-disaster operations assistance will be made available to the eight local government areas of Burdekin, Charters Towers, Isaac, Hinchinbrook, Mackay, Palm Island, Townsville and Whitsunday.

"As the full impacts of this tropical cyclone become evident, we will continue to activate support for the affected communities," Mr Ryan said.

"It is going to be a real test as to whether or not those family homes can sustain these hour-after-hour cyclonic winds that are hammering the homes that people live in. I have asked people to stay indoors and stay safe and that is the best place for people to be. When the eye passes over, it is actually a false sense of security because people think it is calm and they can come out because there is blue skies and the wind has eased.

"However, what we do know is that then the winds pick up from the opposite direction and the hammering of these winds continues. So, it is going to be a really, really long day and night for a lot of families that are living in our coastal communities around the Whitsunday region."

The storm packed wind gusts as high as 263km/h earlier on Tuesday, and while winds near the centre are still 155km/h with gusts up to 220km/h, Debbie has now been downgraded from Category 4 to a Category 3 cyclone.

Proserpine felt the effects of Cyclone Debbie later on Tuesday afternoon, with part of the Bruce Highway cut off south of the area.

You can follow the latest advice and warnings here.

Bruce Gunn, Regional Queensland Director of the Bureau of Meteorology, reminded residents to stay inside as Debbie continues to wreak havoc.

"There's many towns in the Whitsundays that are still under the very destructive core of severe Tropical Cyclone Debbie," he told a press conference on Tuesday afternoon.

"I'd ask people to remember to stay inside, even during the calm eye of the storm.

"As the winds will rapidly increase again after the eye passes. We're updating our warnings for Tropical Cyclone Debbie every hour and these are being broadcast regularly.

Gunn warned that low-lying areas will be on alert for flooding in the coming days.

"The rain has to build up and sort of turn into run-off from the catchments," he said. "Once that happens we might seeing some rivers flooding over the coming days."

The storm continued to intensify in line with meteorologists' most dire predictions as it stalled off the coast for most of Tuesday morning, with the Whitsundays and Hamilton Island facing the brunt of the system.

As the cyclone's very destructive core reaches the towns of Bowen and Mackay, windows are being smashed in and walls ripped off the sides of buildings.

Thirty-five thousand people are without power and some areas are also losing telecommunications, while the storm surge is starting to take its toll on low-lying areas around Mackay, Bowen and Airlie Beach.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said teams would not be deployed to restore power and telecommunications until the conditions had calmed done.

A large yacht was spotted adrift in the wild seas, having lost its moorings at Shute Harbour near Airlie Beach:

Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES) Deputy Commissioner, Mark Roche, said that there had been no reports of fatalities as of 12pm local time (1pm ADST), but he was anticipating "significant damage" to property.

Paramedics are not attending call outs in the Whitsundays, Bowen or Mackay due to the dangerous conditions, the QFES has confirmed.

Premier Palaszczuk told Sky News Australia that Bowen, Airlie Beach and the Whitsunday Islands are in "lockdown".

"There is a lot of flying furniture and flying gutters that we're starting to see," the Premier said on Tuesday afternoon. "Those wind gusts are picking up and they're going to pack a huge punch when they get to 270km/h."

Palaszczuk warned earlier on Tuesday morning that Cyclone Debbie could bring worse winds than Yasi did in 2011.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says the Government's "thoughts and prayers" are with the people of northern Queensland. The Government has activated the disaster response plan, with Australian Defence Personnel on the ground ready to provide "search and research and then relief and recovery".

Due to the cyclone's slow pace -- its recently picked up from a walking pace of just 6km/h to a slightly more brisk 11km/h -- the system is expected to linger in the coastal regions for up to 18 hours.

With the cyclone bringing downpours of up to 500mm in some areas, a flood warning has been issued for the Proserpine River and a moderate flood warning is current for Bowen's Don River.

Bureau of Meteorology Queensland
Cyclone Debbie has made landfall between Bowen and Airlie Beach.

This will also delay help being provided on the ground, with Northern region SES manager Dale Camp saying they may not be able to begin recovery operations until Wednesday morning.

"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."

Palaszczuk warned residents not to be complacent in the calm eye of the storm, which could last in one region for two hours or more, and to stay indoors until tonight or until authorities confirm that it is safe to leave.

One bodyboarder was spotted ignoring emergency warnings, drawing the ire of social media and Channel Nine's Karl Stefanovic for heading into Airlie Beach for a dip during the deceptively calm eye of the storm.

The Whitsunday Islands, including many well-known tourist destinations, have already been battered by the storm's very destructive core for several hours this morning, with wind gusts of up to 263km/h recorded on Hamilton Island -- higher than earlier predicted by the BOM.

Police have been unable to respond to calls for help in the Whitsundays since 7am on Tuesday due to the wild conditions, the Queensland Police Unit reported.

Townsville, Hamilton Island and Mackay Airports are closed all day today, and schools from Townsville to Mackay are closed as emergency services urge everyone to bunker down inside.

Residents are being told not to leave their homes, to secure all doors and windows and to shelter in the strongest room in the house -- preferably one without exterior windows.

Mackay was evacuated in a last-minute decision on Monday evening due to the cyclone heading further south than anticipated.

"We had to take that unprecedented step yesterday afternoon of seeking to evacuate some 25,000 people," Premier Palaszczuk said on Tuesday morning.

That proved to be a wise decision, with low-lying areas experiencing severe flooding. Mackay Regional Council posted images to social media showing streets underwater at Sarina Beach, around 30km south of Mackay:

A storm surge is a raised dome of water pushed onto the coast by a tropical cyclone. The powerful water flow can flood low-lying areas for kilometres inland and are responsible for a high proportion of cyclone-related deaths.

Due to Debbie's unusually slow progress, the worst effects of the storm surge were averted as the system avoided making landfall when predicted, which would have coincided with high tide peak at around 10am this morning. But emergency services are nevertheless urging coastal residents not to be vigilant and to stay away from flood zones.

It is not just coastal towns that will be affected by the strong winds and flooding.

Emergency services were preparing for cyclonic conditions as far inland as Collinsville, 75 kilometres inland of Proserpine, Queensland Police Deputy Commissioner Steve Gollschewski said.

WHAT IS STORM SURGE?

  • We all think of the destructive winds as the number one cyclone-related danger, but storm surge is often more lethal to both property and life.
  • Put simply, it's water that is pushed onshore by a cyclone's incredibly strong winds.
  • A storm surge doesn't come in one big wave or "wall of water" like a tsunami, but as a sustained rise in sea level.
  • When combined with high tide it is particularly dangerous. Not only does it cause flooding, but the force of the water blown onshore can be strong enough to cause major damage.
  • High tide in the area expected to be struck by Cyclone Debbie is around 9am on Tuesday. If the cyclone makes landfall within an hour or so of that time, the effects of storm surge are likely to be severe.
  • As an extreme example, the vast majority of the 1883 deaths in Hurricane Katrina in the U.S. were caused by storm surge.
  • There's more information about storm surges on this page at the Bureau of Meteorology website.

"This is really a very big system and the projected crossing is when the destructive core starts to hit the coast. Now, that will go on for some time and then it will take many hours after that for the destructive winds drop away," Gollschewski told ABC News on Tuesday morning.

Cyclone Debbie has also causing huge quantities of rain to be dumped across large swaths of Queensland, with flooding likely to spread in the days to come.

Strathdickie, just north of Proserpine, received almost 200mm in just one hour Tuesday morning, with the Bureau of Meteorology warning major flooding is likely across Cyclone Debbie's path and beyond.

Flash flooding warnings have been issued for the Central Coast and Whitsundays region.

Relatives and friends wanting to check in on their loved ones can use the Facebook Safety Check In

Facebook has set up a Safety Check In for the cyclone so those affected can reassure their relatives and friends they are safe.

This is a developing news story.


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