SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia's sparsely populated northern tip was on Thursday preparing for the largest cyclone to hit the area since Cyclone Yasi smashed into Queensland in 2011, ripping homes from their foundations and devastating swathes of farmland.
Tropical Cyclone Ita, a category-four storm on a scale in which five is the highest, is packing winds of 260 kmh and is set to lash the Cape York region late on Friday.
Queensland's Premier Campbell Newman, who cut short a visit to Asia to deal with the storm, said 9,000 people could be affected.
"The big concerns people need to prepare for are storm surge... the normal high winds that can cause debris flying around... and finally of course very intense rain causing quite severe local flooding," he said.
Mr Newman said he was particularly worried about campers along the Great Barrier Reef coast, adding that the authorities were considering sending helicopters out to warn them to take shelter.
While the storm was still out at sea, about 420 kms north-east of Cooktown, it was moving towards the coast and could intensify further, the Bureau of Meteorology warned.
"Severe Tropical Cyclone Ita poses a significant threat to communities along the far north Queensland coast," the bureau said, adding that the cyclone is likely to hit in a 400km band between Cape Sidmouth and Cape Tribulation when it makes landfall late on Friday.
Ita formed from the weather system that brought deadly rains to the Solomon Islands last week, killing at least 23 people in flash floods, before it developed into a cyclone.
It is expected to bring "very destructive winds near the core and gales extending some distance from the landfall location", the met bureau said.
"Destructive winds currently extend 80 km out from the centre."
Cyclones are common in northern and western Australia during the warmer months, with Yasi - the worst storm in a century - wreaking A$1 billion (S$1.17 billion) in damage.