CAIRNS, Australia — Tens of thousands of people fled the path of a monster storm bearing down on northeastern Australia as officials warned that the life-threatening cyclone had increased in strength overnight.
Queensland Premier Anna Bligh urged residents of low-lying areas to evacuate quickly as gusts up to 174 mph were expected ahead of Cyclone Yasi, forecast to hit Cairns late Wednesday.
"We are facing a storm of catastrophic proportions in a highly populated area," Bligh told reporters. "What it all adds up to is a very frightening time. We're looking at 24 hours of quite terrifying winds, torrential rain and likely loss of electricity and mobile phones. People really need to be preparing them mentally if nothing else."
Cyclone Yasi was forecast to hit the coast about 10 p.m. Wednesday (6 a.m. CST), the Bureau of Meteorology said.
"Yasi ... poses an extremely serious threat to life and property," the bureau warned, adding that the storm is likely to be "more life-threatening than any experienced in recent generations."
Bligh said the storm, forecast to arrive at high tide, could result in a devastating surge along a vast stretch of the north Queensland coast.
"This is the most severe, most catastrophic storm that has ever hit our coast," she told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. "We've seen a number of worst case scenarios come together."
Hospitals in the tourist gateway of Cairns emptied as military evacuation flights ferried the ill and elderly to safety far south from a long stretch of Queensland state's tropical coast. Residents packed onto extra commercial flights added to allow them to leave.
The Cairns airport was scheduled to close Wednesday as Cyclone Yasi approaches.
"We're in the process of packing up boxes ... the dogs and the pet snake and getting out of here," Cairns resident Melissa Lovejoy told the ABC. She said the family decided to leave their home near the coast for a friend's place that was sturdier and further inland after getting phone call and a text message warning residents to evacuate by Tuesday night.
Forecasters said up to three feet of rain could fall on some coastal communities. Many parts of Queensland state are already saturated from months of flooding, though the worst floods hit areas hundreds of miles farther south of the towns in the immediate path of Yasi. Still, Bligh said residents up and down the coast needed to prepare.
"It's such a big storm — it's a monster, killer storm — that it's not just about where this crosses the coast that is at risk," Bligh said.
The storm is expected to make landfall between Cairns — a city of some 164,000 people and a gateway for visitors to the Great Barrier Reef — and Innisfail, a rural community about 60 miles south, which was devastated by Cyclone Larry in 2006. Larry destroyed thousands of homes and banana and sugar cane plantations. No one was killed.
Thousands of people in low-lying and coastal areas around Cairns have been ordered to evacuate their homes as the sea is expected to surge at least 6.5 feet and flood significant areas.
"In reality, we would like people to get as far south as possible, as quickly as possible, without of course breaking the rules," said Ian Stewart, the state's disaster coordinator.
Airlines arranged extra flights Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. Tourists who had been evacuated from beach resorts — ranging from backpacker hostels to exclusive clubs sometimes frequented by Hollywood stars, and once by a vacationing President Bill Clinton — were flying out.
Another storm, Cyclone Anthony, hit Queensland early Monday but quickly weakened and did little more than uproot some trees and damage power lines. Forecasters said Yasi had a storm front more than 310 miles wide and was far larger and more powerful than the earlier storm, so it could reach far inland before it significantly loses power.
Queensland has been in the grip of one of Australia's worst natural disasters for more than a month. Tropical deluges that began in November flooded an area greater than France and Germany combined, damaging or destroying some 30,000 homes and businesses and killing 35 people.
Large parts of Brisbane, Australia's third largest city, were inundated for days. The government says the total cost to Australia is at least $5.6 billion.
Australia's huge, sparsely populated tropical north is battered by about six cyclones — called typhoons throughout much of Asia and hurricanes in the Western hemisphere — each year. Building codes that have been strengthened since Cyclone Tracy devastated the city of Darwin in 1974 have left the region generally well-prepared.
In 2006, Cyclone Larry tore through the rural community of Innisfail, about 60 miles south of Cairns.