SYDNEY, April 10, 2014 (AFP) - Australia's sparsely populated northern tip was Thursday preparing for the largest cyclone to hit the area since Cyclone Yasi smashed into Queensland in 2011, ripping homes from their foundations and devastating crops.
Tropical Cyclone Ita was upgraded to a maximum category-five storm late Thursday and was said to be packing wind gusts near its centre of 285 kilometres (177 miles) per hour.
The storm, which the Bureau of Meteorology said could intensify further, was set to lash the Cape York region north of Cairns in Queensland late Friday.
"At this stage it is expected to approach the coast between Cape Melville and Cape Tribulation and make landfall late on Friday as a severe category five tropical cyclone with very destructive winds near the core and gales extending some distance from the landfall," it said in a warning.
Queensland's Premier Campbell Newman, who cut short a visit to Asia to deal with the storm, said 9,000 people could be affected.
"The big concerns people need to prepare for are storm surge... the normal high winds that can cause debris flying around... and finally of course very intense rain causing quite severe local flooding," he said.
Newman said he was particularly worried about campers along the Great Barrier Reef coast, adding that authorities were considering sending helicopters out to warn them to take shelter.
While the storm was still out at sea, about 375 kilometres north-northeast of Cooktown, it was moving towards the coast, the Bureau of Meteorology warned.
Officials are concerned that the cyclone could hit around high tide, worsening dangerous storm surges.
"Coastal residents between Cape Melville and Cape Tribulation are specifically warned of the dangerous storm tide as the cyclone crosses," the bureau said.
"The sea is likely to rise steadily up to a level which will be significantly above the normal tide, with damaging waves, strong currents and flooding of low-lying areas extending some way inland."
Ita formed from the weather system that brought deadly rains to the Solomon Islands last week, killing at least 23 people in flash floods, before it developed into a cyclone.
Cyclones are common in northern and western Australia during the warmer months, with Yasi - the worst storm in a century - wreaking Aus$1 billion (US$943 million) in damage.
Ita is much smaller than Yasi, in which the main body of the storm sprawled across 500 kilometres.