Powerful Cyclone Rusty nears north-west Australia

SYDNEY (AFP) - Authorities in north-west Australia on Tuesday urged residents to evacuate as a powerful cyclone whipped up huge seas and the weather bureau warned of "phenomenal rainfall" and hurricane-force winds.

Wild weather was pounding the north of Western Australia as tropical cyclone Rusty, upgraded to a severe category three storm, neared the coast and a second low-pressure system formed in the Indian Ocean.

Australia's major iron ore export ports were shut as Rusty approached and authorities ordered evacuations in the sparsely-populated region, which is frequently battered by cyclones in the warmer months.

"There is a possible threat to lives and homes as a cyclone is approaching the area. You need to take action and get ready to shelter from a cyclone," Western Australia's department of fire and emergency services said.

"People in low lying areas of Port Hedland ... should relocate now because of very likely storm surge."

The cyclone was expected to make landfall as a category four storm on Wednesday afternoon north of Port Hedland, about 1,300km north of Perth.

South Hedland stadium was packed to capacity with hundreds of evacuees and those who had been unable to get out in time were encouraged to take food and water to the strongest part of their home and take shelter until the storm passed.

"If you don't need to travel, don't travel. It's gone beyond that now ... the roads are definitely closed," an emergency services spokesman said.

Australia's weather bureau has warned that its slow motion and large size will bring prolonged and extensive gales.

It said very destructive winds gusting in excess of 165km per hour were expected to develop on Wednesday well ahead of Rusty making landfall, bringing very heavy rain likely to cause flooding.

"We are talking Noah's Ark here, we really are talking phenomenal amounts of rainfall," bureau spokesman Andrew Burton told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

"We are seeing totals already up around 100-150 millimetres per day up the coast. I think that's going to pale into insignificance compared to what we'll see over the next couple (of) days."

The cyclone's intensity, size and slow movement was expected to bring a very dangerous storm tide and inundation as it approached the Australian coast, with a swell expected "significantly above the normal high tide mark".

Strong squalls were already blowing in excess of 120km per hour at Port Hedland, and the port authority said the shipping control tower had been closed and all personnel evacuated.

Rain has also lashed Australia's east coast, with Queensland police confirming a 77-year-old man died when his vehicle was submerged by floodwaters at Kilcoy, north of Brisbane, after torrential rains drenched the state for the second time in as many months.