A severe category four tropical cyclone could develop off the Queensland coast on Saturday, the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) has warned.
Tropical Cyclone Nora formed early on Friday in the Arafura Sea and intensified to a category three system about 8:30pm.
BOM said the system had winds near the centre of 120 kilometres per hour with wind gusts to 165 kilometres per hour.
It said the system was continuing to intensify and was predicted to reach category four during Saturday while over the north-east Gulf of Carpentaria before it makes landfall.
The cyclone is expected to be the first severe cyclone — category three or higher — to hit the Gulf in 17 years.
The last one of this size was Tropical Cyclone Abigail in 2001, which did not cause much critical damage.
Nora is expected to be worse than Abigail because of its size and direction, and due to significant tidal surges predicted near Gulf communities.
Currently, a warning is in place for Elcho Island to Cape Shield, including Nhulunbuy and Pormpuraaw to Thursday Island, including Weipa.
BOM said the cyclone on Sunday was expected to take a more southerly track and move close to the south-east Gulf of Carpentaria coast.
It said a coastal crossing anywhere along the western Cape York Peninsula south of Mapoon during Saturday or Sunday was also possible.
Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES) commissioner Katarina Carroll said residents still had a limited window of opportunity to ensure their homes and families were ready.
“Areas between Thursday Island and Pormpuraaw could see gale force winds as early as tonight as well as heavy rainfall and abnormally high tides,” Ms Carroll said.
North Queensland deluge predicted
Bureau of Meteorology Queensland state manager Bruce Gunn said it was a “rapidly intensifying situation”.
He said it was expected gales would increase to 110 kilometres per hour on Friday night, with possible 170kph wind gusts on Saturday if the cyclone was closer to coast.
“It’s really hanging around the southern Gulf potentially for the quite some days to come,” he said.
Mr Gunn said flood watches had been issued for a large part of north Queensland.
“We might see daily rainfall totals in the vicinity of 100 millimetres to 200mm per day — maybe isolated falls of 300mm in a day,” Mr Gunn said.
“This is affecting some of the east coast catchments that have been recently well saturated by rainfall, so the flood situation is something we’ll have to watch as it evolves.”
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said she was impressed with the level of preparedness, both in Brisbane and in remote communities.
“There hasn’t been a cyclone that has crossed the coast of Queensland in that area of our state since about 2001,” Ms Palaszczuk said.
“It has escalated quite quickly to the forecast of being a category four, so that is why we want to make sure that everything that can be done, has been done.
“We actually have already deployed some senior officers to these communities — that is the first time that has happened — and that is due to the remote locations of these communities.”
No cyclone shelters in the Gulf
Authorities said Mornington Island was vulnerable and did not have a cyclone shelter.
Mornington Shire Council CEO Frank Mills said they were busy making alternative arrangements for locals.
“The safest place on Mornington Island, believe it or not, is actually in the cells at the police station,” Mr Mills said.
“Hopefully they won’t be used for that in this occasion, but there’s that option.”
Mr Mills said while there were some cyclone-rated houses in Mornington, an official shelter was needed.
“It’s an absolute need for a cyclone shelter here, and that’s a discussion that we’ve had with both the Commonwealth and state governments over the last couple of years.”
Mr Mills was also encouraging residents to stock up on food ahead of the severe weather event from the local store.
“They need to start thinking about having appropriate food,” he said.
“We did a check with the store and we’ve got enough non-perishables food to last us about 50 days here.”
Evacuations for some residents
Queensland Health said it was evacuating 25 vulnerable people from Mornington Island, Pormpuraaw and Kowanyama during Friday.
North West Hospital and Health Service chief executive Lisa Davies Jones said it was safer for pregnant women and those with a medical condition to relocate.
“We’re planning on four patients coming out of Mornington because obviously we need to fly people out of Mornington,” Ms Davies Jones said.
“We have people with dialysis needs, a couple of ladies who are pregnant and obviously need to be close to maternity services, and another frail older person.”
She said they would monitor the need for further evacuations.
“We’ll be keeping a very close watching brief over the weekend — we’ve got lists of all vulnerable patients in all of the communities within the lower Gulf,” she said.
Cr Mills said an additional flight was being offered for Mornington Island residents who wanted to evacuate in the event the severe cyclone hits.
He said there would be a flight to Cairns on Saturday morning for any concerned residents.
“Anyone that’s got any concerns for their safety or their health are urged to jump on the plane,” he said.
“Bookings can be done as per normal online or at the office here on Mornington Island.
“Certainly encourage people that have already inquired about a flight tomorrow to take advantage of it.”
Wind map showing Tropical Cyclone Nora north of the Gulf of Carpentaria in northern Australia.
Meanwhile, Carpentaria Mayor Jack Bawden said Ergon Energy were setting up emergency generators near the hospital, schools, accommodation facilities and town hall.
Cr Bawden said if Cyclone Nora headed towards the west of Karumba, tidal surge would be a major concern.
He said the council would assess the need for evacuations and for those that could not get out of town there were cyclone shelters at the sports centres in Karumba and Normanton.
“By tomorrow [Saturday] afternoon we’ll probably have to make a call on whether to start shifting the serious ones out of town, probably towards Mount Isa or something like that,” he said.
“Because if it tracks according to a couple of the models, then Normanton is not going to be a very handy place to be either.”
Residents must not be complacent
District disaster coordinator and Mount Isa Police Superintendent Glen Pointing said while communities in Queensland’s Gulf of Carpentaria were prepared, residents must not be complacent.
“People in the north are relatively used to bad weather event but it pays to take as much caution as you can,” Superintendent Pointing said.
“You always need to be vigilant with these events.”
He said the biggest concern with Tropical Cyclone Nora was the gale-force winds.
“We’re always about the strong winds, and the destructive ability of these cyclones — that’s where we get our main damage,” Superintendent Pointing said.
“That’s why people need to stay indoors when cyclones are raging — it’s just important to shelter at a place of refuge and just be careful.”