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Tens of thousands flee Queensland as 'deadly' cyclone approaches

Incoming storm threatens to be as strong as Hurricane Katrina

Tens of thousands of people fled towns and tourist resorts in north Queensland yesterday and military helicopters evacuated hospital patients as a cyclone rivalling Hurricane Katrina roared towards the heavily populated coast.

Cyclone Yasi is forecast to make landfall in the next few hours, with winds of up to 175mph and triggering storm surges and potentially deadly flash floods.

While residents in Cairns, the main jumping-off point for the Great Barrier Reef, have been warned to expect a direct hit, nearly a quarter of a million people – in towns and cities along the coast and possibly hundreds of miles inland – are in its path.

The authorities warned residents and visitors in low-lying areas that yesterday was the last chance to get out safely. All aircraft leaving north Queensland – one of Australia's most popular tourist destinations – were full last night, and airlines laid on extra flights to help with the exodus. With the state still reeling from last month's record floods, which killed 35 people, the premier, Anna Bligh, said: "I know many of us will feel that Queensland has already borne about as much as it can bear when it comes to disasters and storms, but more is being asked of us."

Yasi – expected to be a severe category five when it hits land – was "huge and life-threatening," she warned.

While the tropical north of the state is regularly buffeted by cyclones, forecasters fear that Yasi – which was picking up speed and intensity yesterday as it crossed the Coral Sea – could be Queensland's worst ever.

The mayor of Cairns, Val Schier, said: "There's a lot of fear and trepidation about it. There hasn't been a cyclone of this size in anyone's lifetime. It's quite scary, to be honest, and the fact it's heading straight towards us is cause for great worry."

Much of Cairns is predicted to be flooded as the storm – which has a front of up to 600 miles – causes tidal surges of up to 8ft (2.4m). There are similar warnings for the city of Townsville; even the mining town of Mount Isa, 600 miles inland, has been placed on alert. "Make no mistake: this storm is a deadly event," said Queensland's disaster co-ordinator, Deputy Police Commissioner Ian Stewart.

Tourist resorts on the coast and on the Whitsunday Islands, famed for their white beaches and luxury accommodation, emptied yesterday as holidaymakers fled. The military airlifted hundreds of patients from two waterfront hospitals in Cairns to Brisbane, the state capital, and the elderly were also evacuated from care homes. Supermarkets reported panic buying, and long queues formed at petrol stations.

While flood-devastated areas are expected to escape the worst of the cyclonic rains, other parts of the state will be saturated, with Yasi forecast to dump 3ft of rain. Urging people to be sensible in the face of the cyclone's "display of awesome power," Ms Bligh warned: "We could see very powerful flash flooding that will be dangerous and potentially deadly."

Queensland's last severe storm, Cyclone Larry, ruined the sugar crop, flattened the town of Innisfail and wreaked A$1.5bn worth of damage in 2006. Ms Bligh said Yasi was "significantly larger" than Larry – so big that its eye could take an hour to pass over a single point. Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005, generated winds of up to 125mph.

Queensland police have been given emergency powers to move people forcibly out of danger zones. In the small tourist town of Mission Beach, which was also levelled by Larry, one resident, Elvira Montgomery, said yesterday: "It's a beautiful day today, but all of the tourists have now gone, and we're just preparing everything for the cyclone."

Yasi is another blow for the state's coalmining industry, already facing huge losses as a result of the floods. At least one major mine closed temporarily yesterday, and rail and port operations were suspended.

The floods inundated about 30,000 homes and triggered an "inland tsunami" that destroyed small farming towns west of Brisbane.