Updated: 04/11/2014 18:11 | By Agence France-Presse

Powerful cyclone nears Australia's Barrier Reef coast

A cyclone packing winds of up to 270 kilometres (167 miles) an hour swept towards Australia's Great Barrier Reef coast Friday, forcing tens of thousands of people to hunker down as authorities warned of potential devastation.

Powerful cyclone nears Australia's Barrier Reef coast

An undated photo shows a damaged reef on the Great Barrier Reef off Australia's northeastern coast

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.

"It's still a destructive cyclone which has very strong winds," Queensland Premier Campbell Newman said, adding some 9,000 people in and around Cooktown were "staring down quite a destructive cyclonic event". 

A total of 30,000 further south were reportedly urged to evacuate.

Ita sat some 90 kilometres northeast of Cooktown, a coastal community of 2,400 people, at 0900 GMT, but a warning zone extends to the Great Barrier Reef tourist hubs of Port Douglas and Cairns.

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 in the path of the menacing storm to head to local cyclone shelters.

"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".

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.

- Storm surges feared -

The Bureau of Meteorology called Ita "very serious" and said it expected the storm to make landfall near Cape Flattery, some 70 kilometres north of Cooktown on the sparsely populated Cape York peninsula, before midnight (1400 GMT). 

It warned that while the strongest winds will be concentrated near the eye of the storm, destructive winds, heavy rainfall possibly leading to flash flooding, and coastal inundation from a storm surge all pose threats.

The possibility of dangerous surges prompted warnings for people to evacuate parts of Cairns south of Cooktown, with the ABC reporting that 30,000 people had been advised to seek shelter elsewhere.

The power of storm surges was shown in November when Super Typhoon Haiyan pummelled the Philippines with record winds of 315 kilometres an hour, with entire towns wiped out when tsunami-like waves crashed hundreds of metres inland. 

Australia is much better equipped to handle natural disasters than its Asian neighbour. Nevertheless, Premier Newman warned that in the worst-case scenario, storm surges of up to two metres above normal high tides could hit areas including Cairns, depending on the cyclone's path.

"I want people to know the government has done everything it possibly can and after the event, we're mobilising to get in and help the affected communities," he added, while warning that telephone and electricity lines could be down temporarily after the storm passes.

Brendan Cullen, manager of the Sovereign Resort Hotel, one of three hotels in Cooktown, said locals were used to cyclones and had prepared their homes and businesses by taping up windows and securing debris.

But he said concerns were growing. "We're worried about it landing right on top of us and the storm surge.

"As far as the general feeling in town, it's a windy place anyway so it's not as if there's a lot of debris lying around," he told AFP.

"At this particular junction there's a bit of anxiety. It stands to reason that if it comes this way with those winds... there's going to be some sort of damage in town."

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