Cyclone Ita sits menacingly over north Queensland. Photo: NOAA/Twitter
Tropical Cyclone Ita, which is bearing down on far north Queensland, has been downgraded to a category 4 as power is lost to the township of Cooktown where hundreds are huddled in a cyclone shelter.
The Bureau of Meteorology released new advice just before 5pm on Friday warning that the severe cyclone was 115 kilometres northeast of Cooktown and 270 kilometres north of Cairns.
The Bureau said it was moving in a south-westerly direction at a rate of 13 kilometres an hour.
“Severe Tropical Cyclone Ita, category 4, poses a serious threat to communities along the far north Queensland coast,” the Bureau said.
“It is expected to continue to move in a general south-southwest direction and make landfall near Cape Flattery tonight with very destructive winds to 275 kilometres per hour near the core and gales extending out to 185 kilometres from the centre.”
The ABC reported earlier that Cooktown had already lost power.
The Australian Museum, which owns a world-class research facility on Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef, has evacuated 27 people from the island.
“As we speak, the cyclone is sitting on top of it,” Museum director Kim McKay said.
Ms McKay said the research station’s two directors of 24 years standing had evacuated for the first time in their tenure, despite weathering numerous other storms and cyclones.
“This is the first time in 24 years they’ve had to evacuate,” she said.
The Museum’s facility had a fleet of 15 boats and equipment worth in excess of $15 million they were worried would sustain severe damage, Ms McKay said.
Weatherzone meteorologist Max Gonzales said when the cyclone made landfall late on Friday, it could dump 300mm on the area around Cooktown.
Queensland’s Emergency Services Minister Jack Dempsey has delivered a grim and blunt warning to north Queenslanders that Cyclone Ita could claim lives.
“This is an extreme event and it has the possibility to take lives and the potential to severely damage property in North Queensland, ” Mr Dempsey warned on Friday afternoon.
“I’m asking all Queenslanders to work together, to look after their mates and to ensure that the most vulnerable citizens in our community are looked after,” he said.
Mr Dempsey said the latest modelling showed Cyclone Ita would cross the coast near Cooktown about 10pm.
He also warned of storm surges – at the worst case – of between 1.5 metres and 2 metres in the Cooktown to Cairns area.
He called on householders and businesses to use the remaining daylight hours to secure valuable documents.
“Because if you have these with you it will save a lot of heartache in possibly darkness and early-morning hours,” he said.
Richard Wardle, Acting Regional Director of the Bureau of Meteorology said their tracking predicted Cyclone Ita would cross the coast “anytime between 10pm and midnight’’.
‘‘We are predicting landfall to ocurr between Cape Melville and Cooktown,” Mr Wardle said.
“And more towards Cooktown in the Cape Flaherty area.”
Wardle said storm force winds were already being experienced at the Bureau’s weather station on Lizard Island.
Indigenous communities near Cooktown have been door knocked to warn them of the approaching cyclone, State Disaster Coordinator Steve Gollschewski said,
There are four major indigenous communities near Cooktown; Hope Vale, Coen, Yarranbah and Wujal Wujal.
“Planning is quite detailed there, ” Mr Gollschewski said.
“There is a storm shelter in Hope Vale which takes 800 people,” he said.
“There is currently between 600 and 700 people registered in there.”
Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Lee Johnson said extra emergency staff were sent to Cairns Friday afternoon.
“This afternoon a further 45 urban search and rescue firefighters were sent to Cairns to assist there should they be needed.”
Commissioner Johnson, himself a North Queenslander, pleaded with residents to take extreme care.
“Take this seriously,” he said. “This is an extreme event.”
“Initially you will feel the effect of destructive winds, followed by torrential and heavy rainfall, which is going to cause major flooding,” he said.
“With the potential for these storm tides and storm surges issues to impact coastal communities.”
There are about 9000 people directly in Ita’s path, with the bureau saying the the storm poses a “serious threat to communities along the far north Queensland coast”.
In Cooktown, the local cyclone shelter had filled with 300 people by early Friday morning, Cook Shire Deputy Mayor Penny Johnson said.
The cyclone is expected to bring storm surges, predicted to be 1.5 metres bigger than usual high tides, in Cooktown, home to about 2300 people 300 kilometres north of Cairns.
“The coastal storm surge – don’t underestimate it,” Premier Campbell Newman told reporters at Queensland’s emergency headquarters in Brisbane.
The Queensland Fire and Emergency Service has issued the following advice to residents in the warning zone:
– For Cooktown and local environs if your home was built before 1985 there is a high risk that it may not withstand Category 5 Tropical Cyclone Ita.
– You should think seriously about relocating to another location. Seek shelter with family or friends and if you can’t do that, go to your local cyclone shelter.
– If your home was built after 1985 it should be able to withstand the cyclone and you should be able to take shelter there.
– If you intend to shelter in your house choose the location likely to be the most cyclone resistant, e.g. the bathroom
– Take the opportunity now to charge mobile phones and close off any apps or smartphones that you don’t need as they take up battery power.
– Include batteries amongst the essential items in your emergency kit as well as sufficient drinking water and non-perishable food, medical supplies or medicines to cover for up to a week after the storm.
QFES northern regional director Wayne Coutts said residents had a limited timeframe to ensure their homes and families were ready.
“Prepare your family by ensuring your emergency kit is well stocked with essential supplies including food, water, warm clothes, medications, first aid supplies, important documents, valuables and sleeping gear,” he said.
Mr Coutts advised residents to secure loose outdoor items, including boats, vehicles and bicycles and tape windows in a criss-crossing fashion using in strong packing tape.
“Bring children and pets indoors. When the weather system approaches remain inside until further advice is given,” he said.
Water and Energy Minister Mark McArdle said Ergon Energy crews had been placed on alert for what was potentially the most powerful cyclone to threaten Queensland in three years.
“Standard preparations and checks have been under way this week for Ergon operations in northern parts of the state and the emergency management plan has now been activated,” Mr McArdle said.