- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 1, 2011

CAIRNS, Australia (AP) — Thousands of people fled from the path of a monster storm bearing down on northeastern Australia that officials warned Tuesday was almost certain to cause widespread damage and could turn deadly in a state still suffering from massive floods.

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 that are in the path of Cyclone Yasi. 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 Australian Broadcasting Corp. 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.

Cyclone Yasi was forecast to hit the coast late Wednesday or early Thursday with wind gusts of around 155 miles per hour, the Bureau of Meteorology said.

Carla Jenkins, a 23-year-old Cairns resident and flight attendant, was feeling jittery as her plane coasted to a halt at the Cairns airport Tuesday night. Jenkins lived through Cyclone Larry, which slammed into the region in 2006, and feared Yasi would be even more brutal.

“One of the scariest things I remember [from Larry] was on the radio, they said, ‘Fear for your life,’” said Ms. Jenkins, who was planning to ride out the storm in her house. “I’ve got a feeling this is going to be worse. So I’m just a bit freaked out.”

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, Queensland Prime Minister Anna 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,” Ms. Bligh said.

“I know many of us will feel that Queensland has already borne about as much as we can bear when it comes to disasters and storms,” she said. “But more is being asked of us.”

Cairns, a city of some 164,000 people and a gateway for visitors to the Great Barrier Reef, was in the path to bear the brunt of the storm. But wind warnings of various degrees of strength were issued for a stretch of coast some 1,000 miles long, from the remote community Cape Melville to the port city of Gladstone.

In Cairns, more than 9,000 people in low-lying and coastal parts were ordered to evacuate their homes as the sea is expected to surge at least 6.5 feet and flood significant parts of the city.

The military was airlifting 250 patients from the waterfront Cairns Base and Cairns Private hospitals to Brisbane, the state capital about 1,000 miles south. Elderly care homes were also being evacuated.

“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, told reporters.

Airlines were arranging extra flights Tuesday night. 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 dollars.

Yasi’s forecast path is farther north, sparing Brisbane and towns worst-hit by the past floods. Still, Ms. Bligh said the storm’s path could change and everyone near the coast should prepare.

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, destroying thousands of homes and devastating banana and sugar cane plantations. No one was killed.

Mr. Stewart said residents in Yasi’s path should be prepared with flashlights, food and water.

“Please make no mistake: This storm is a deadly event,” he said. “Now is the time to act.”

In Cairns, residents stocked up on food and supplies ahead of the storm.

Mayor Val Schier said some people were running behind with their preparations, despite the warnings.

“Some people have left it very late,” she said. “They were complacent and didn’t heed the warnings.”