Thousands of people have begun to evacuate low-lying areas of Australia's tropical northeast on Monday (27 March) as a powerful cyclone approaches the coast.

Cyclone Debbie
Storm clouds gather in the town of Ayr in far north Queensland as Cyclone Debbie approachesPeter Parks/AFP

Churning over the Pacific Ocean as a Category 3 storm with winds up to 100mph, Cyclone Debbie is expected to cross the Queensland state coast along a sparsely populated 60 mile stretch between the towns of Ayr and Bowen early on Tuesday (28 March) Australian Bureau of Meteorology forecaster Michael Paech told the Associated Press. It is expected to intensify to a Category 4 storm with wind gusts up to 160mph when it crosses on to land, he said.

Cyclone Debbie
A closure notice and protective plywood panels are seen at an ice cream shop on the Strand in TownsvilleIan Hitchcock/Getty Images

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk urged people in the most vulnerable areas to evacuate on Monday before conditions deteriorate. She told the AP that the farming region had never experienced a storm stronger than Category 2 and that older homes would not withstand a Category 4 storm. "This window of opportunity to leave is drastically closing," Palaszczuk told reporters. "I am just pleading to everyone, please, listen to authorities. I do, you must as well. This is about your safety, it is about the safety of your family and the safety of your children."

Cyclone Debbie
People fill sandbags in preparation for Cyclone Debbie in TownsvilleIan Hitchcock/Getty Images
Cyclone Debbie
Cyclone Debbie
Sandbags are placed under a Surf Lifesaving building along the Strand in TownsvilleIan Hitchcock/Getty Images

Roughly 3,500 people have left the Townsville area, while authorities have advised 2,000 more people in the town of Bowen to also leave. More than 100 schools have reportedly closed across the north Queensland coast. Supermarket shelves are now practically empty, while restaurants, hotels and small businesses have also closed their doors. Sandbags have been laid down in preparation.

Police said that a 31-year old woman died in a car crash at Cannon Valley, after it was caught in fierce winds in north Queensland, becoming the first victim of the super storm. The driver escaped the crash unharmed while another passenger received minor injuries.

Cyclone Debbie
A sign is painted on the fence of a home ahead of the arrival of Cyclone Debbie in Bowen, south of TownsvilleSarah Motherwell/Reuters
Cyclone Debbie
Police and Special Emergency Services (SES) advise a resident to evacuate in preparation for the arrival of Cyclone Debbie in TownsvilleDan Peled/Reuters
Cyclone Debbie
Council workers cover glass panels with bubble wrap in preparation for Cyclone Debbie in TownsvilleIan Hitchcock/Getty Images
Cyclone Debbie
Strand Hotel manager John McBride tapes up the hotel doors and windows in TownsvilleIan Hitchcock/Getty Images
Cyclone Debbie
Empty supermarket shelves are seen as Townsville residents prepare for Cyclone DebbieIan Hitchcock/Getty Images
Cyclone Debbie
A local newspaper is seen laying next to sandbags in TownsvilleIan Hitchcock/Getty Images
Cyclone Debbie
Magnetic Island boat ferries are seen secured with 'Cyclone ropes' at the Magnetic Island ferry terminal in TownsvilleIan Hitchcock/Getty Images
Cyclone Debbie
Sunset is shown at Kissing Point, Townsville as Cyclone Debbie approaches the North Queensland coast in TownsvilleIan Hitchcock/Getty Images