Cyclone threatens Australia

CAIRNS, Australia — Thousands of Australians were urged today to gather their loved ones and flee a monster cyclone that strengthened overnight and threatens hours of terrifying winds and torrential rain for the northeast.

Gusts up to 174 mph are expected when Cyclone Yasi strikes late tonight. The storm front is more than 310 miles wide, and Yasi is so strong, it could reach far inland before it significantly loses power.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh urged people living in low-lying areas to get out quickly as roads and airports were within hours of closing.

"Do not bother to pack bags. Just grab each other and get to a place of safety. Remember that people are irreplaceable," she said.

Cyclone Yasi was forecast to hit land at about 10 p.m., the Bureau of Meteorology said. The timing, just after high tide, meant storm surges of at least 6.5 feet were likely to flood significant areas along the coast.

"Yasi ... poses an extremely serious threat to life and property," the bureau warned, adding that the storm is likely to be "more life-threatening than any experienced in recent generations."

Bligh said residents in coastal areas should have left already as their region would undoubtedly flood. Those living farther inland were told to "bunker down" in their homes and get ready for gale-force winds expected to hit within hours.

"We are facing a storm of catastrophic proportions in a highly populated area," Bligh said. "What it all adds up to is a very frightening time. We're looking at 24 hours of quite terrifying winds, torrential rain, likely loss of electricity and mobile phones. People really need to be preparing mentally if nothing else."

The storm is expected to make landfall between Cairns — a city of some 164,000 people and a gateway for visitors to the Great Barrier Reef — and Innisfail, a rural community about 60 miles south, which was devastated by Cyclone Larry in 2006.

The Cairns airport was scheduled to close today after extra morning flights left. Tourists fled beach resorts ranging from backpacker hostels to exclusive clubs, and military flights ferried the ill and elderly from hospitals to safety farther south.