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“The wind and rain outside are howling; it’s a horrible sound,” he said.

Storm surges of at least 6.5 feet were likely and would almost certainly flood some coastal communities, forecasters said, adding that up to 28 inches of rain could fall within hours in some areas.

At highest risk was an area about 150 miles long between Cairns and the sugar cane-growing town of Ingham, the bureau said. The storm was forecast to continue inland at cyclone strength for two days and gradually weaken. It was unclear what the damage to the Great Barrier Reef would be, experts said.

State disaster coordinator Ian Stewart said just one emergency call had been received — from six people in their 60s who feared their apartment in the resort town of Port Hinchinbrook would be swamped by the storm surge. They were told to wait it out because it was too dangerous for emergency workers to try to reach them, Mr. Stewart said.

Winds knocked out power to about 90,000 homes, a number expected to rise.

Still, many in Yasi’s path were stoic. Cairns resident Jane Alcorn banned those who planned to shelter with her in the garage of her apartment complex from panicking.

“There’s no crying, no hysterics,” said Ms. Alcorn, 42. “It’s going to be loud, it’s going to be scary. But we’ve got each other.”

Queensland officials warned people for days to stock up on bottled water and food, and to board or tape up their windows. People in low-lying or exposed areas were told to evacuate.

More than 10,000 people took shelter in 20 evacuation centers, including one at a shopping mall in downtown Cairns, a city of 165,000. People huddled in hallways with blankets, camping chairs and snacks.

On Wednesday, police told people to get off Cairns’ streets. “Everyone’s gotta go now,” one officer told pedestrians near the waterfront. “The water is coming NOW.”

Warnings stretched as far away as Townsville, which is slightly larger than Cairns and about 190 miles to the south, and Mount Isa, about 500 miles inland.

Carla Jenkins, 23, of Cairns, packed a suitcase, taped the windows of her house and fled to her grandmother’s sturdier apartment complex with her sister and her dog, Elmo. The women had candles, flashlights, water and canned food, and planned to spend the night huddled in a bathroom away from the windows.

“I can’t see many Cairns people sleeping tonight,” she said. “Tonight’s going to be a very scary night.”

Australia’s huge, sparsely populated tropical north is battered annually by about six cyclones — called typhoons throughout much of Asia and hurricanes in the Western hemisphere. Building codes have been strengthened since Cyclone Tracy devastated the city of Darwin in 1974, killing 71 in one of Australia’s worst natural disasters.