Australia's northeast braces for double cyclone hit, evacuations underway

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Two cyclones bearing down on northeastern Australia dramatically intensified on Thursday as emergency officials warned residents to take shelter on higher ground ahead of torrential rain and flooding, destructive winds and massive seas.

Cyclone Marcia is predicted to intensify to a category 4 system - the second highest rating - as it crosses the northeast Queensland coast on Friday morning with destructive winds up to 270 kmh expected near the core of the system, according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. "This very dangerous cyclone is now at category four intensity and continuing to intensify extremely rapidly," the weather bureau's latest tropical cyclone advice said.

Meteorologists also expect Cyclone Lam, with winds near the centre of 140 kph and gusts up to 195 kph, is forecast to make landfall in the remote Northern Territory late Thursday or early Friday.

Lam has already forced some 350 residents to evacuate exposed offshore islands and prompted emergency officials to warn remaining residents to seek shelter on higher ground. "Our message to Queenslanders is start getting ready now," said state premier Annastacia Palaszczuk.

Supermarket shelves were cleared in towns in the path of Marcia as residents bunkered down at homes or in shelters erected in hospitals and schools.

Hundreds of "swift water" rescue teams were ready to assist people stranded in floodwaters.

Shipping and aluminium smelting in the path of the cyclones could face disruptions but farmers suffering under severe drought will welcome the soaking rains.

The Port of Gladstone, Queensland's biggest multi-commodity port, said all ship loading operations have ceased. Maritime Safety Queensland said ships would be moved away from Gladstone Harbour and into deeper, safer sea lanes.

Marcia is expected to make landfall 125 km north of Boyne Island in Queensland, where Rio Tinto operates Australia's largest aluminium smelter.

While Lam will pass close to Rio's Gove bauxite mining operation in the sparsely populated Northern Territory.

Lam was also threatening to disrupt BHP Billiton's Groote Eylandt manganese mine and Glencore's McArthur River zinc and lead mine.

Once Marcia makes landfall it is predicted to sweep down Queensland's heavily populated southeast coast, which includes Australia's third largest city Brisbane.

Queensland State Emergency Services said it had so far handed out more than 7,000 sandbags to help shore up homes and storefronts and advised residents to seek higher ground.

Coastal towns were already feeling the brunt of rising seas and many beaches were closed.

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