The Insurance Council of Australia has declared Cyclone Debbie a "catastrophe" as the eye of the storm made landfall along the north Queensland coastline near Airlie Beach on Tuesday (28 March) afternoon.

The destructive cyclone battered Whitsunday Islands and the nearby mainland, bringing sustained winds of up to 175km/h and gusts of up to 250km/h, according to the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM). It also brought heavy rain in the areas, raising threats of floods.

The met office added that the cyclone was now headed further northwest along the coast to Ayr and to adjacent inland areas, including Collinsville and Mount Coolon, where it is expected to hit later in the evening. Towns like Townsville, Charters Towers, Mackay or Sarina are no longer in the firing line of the storm, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported.

Rob Whelan, CEO of the insurance body, said the cost of the damage from the cyclone was yet to be estimated, but insurers were bracing for thousands of claims in the coming weeks.

Cyclone Yasi, which hit Queensland in 2011, had caused extensive damage to less populated areas in the state's far north leading to insured losses of $1.4bn, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. However, Tropical Cyclone Debbie – a category 4 storm – is being regarded as more destructive.

Cyclone Debbie
Cyclone Debbie has been declared a "catastrophe" by the Insurance Council of Australia as the eye of the storm made a landfall near Arlie Beach in Queensland state on Tuesday, 28 March afternoon Getty Images

Earlier in the day, the cyclone lashed Hayman Island with gusts of up to 263km/h, disrupting power supply in many areas, with Ergon Energy reporting that more than 30,000 people were without power in Airlie Beach, Proserpine, Bowen, Mackay and Cannonvale as of Tuesday noon.

State Disaster Coordinator, Deputy Commissioner Steve Gollschewski, said after fully crossing the Queensland coast, the cyclone would become a category 3 storm over land for 18 hours.

The BOM warned that the coast would receive between 150mm to 500mm of rain on Tuesday. A flood warning has been issued for the Proserpine River and a moderate flood warning is in force for Bowen's Don River, while minor to moderate flood levels are expected on the Pioneer River in Mackay.

The approaching storm led to one of the largest evacuations in the country, with about 25,000 urged to move to safer places. Many tourists were also affected by the cyclone and were forced to abandon their travel plans and move to safety.