Australia braces for 'very destructive' cyclone

The Great Barrier Reef off the coast of the Whitsunday Islands, where residents have been told to leave low-lying areas as Cyclone Debbie approaches

Australians are bracing for the worst cyclone in the country's northeast in several years, with residents evacuated and schools closed amid forecasts of destructive winds and rain.

Cyclone Debbie has been forming off the coast of Queensland state in recent days, the official Bureau of Meteorology said Sunday, with its "very destructive core" expected to hit land early Tuesday morning.

"The very destructive core of Tropical Cyclone Debbie is currently expected to cross the coast between Townsville and Proserpine on Tuesday morning, most likely as a category four tropical cyclone, with wind gusts up to 260 kmh (162 mph) near the centre.

Debbie is expected to develop into category three late Sunday.

"I think you could say that Debbie's probably the most significant tropical cyclone since Yasi that we've had to deal with in Queensland," Bureau of Meteorology Queensland regional director Bruce Gunn told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, referring to a 2011 cyclone.

"Not so much because of its intensity, we're only predicting a category four at landfall, but mostly because of its size and extent."

Yasi saw homes in northern Queensland ripped from their foundations and crops devastated.

The Whitsundays, an island off the coast of Queensland, faced an evacuation call Sunday as residents were told to leave low-lying areas amid fears of a storm tide.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said dozens of schools would be closed for the cyclone.

Shopkeeper Ken Hall said he was stacking sandbags in front of his store in Home Hill north of the Whitsundays.

"I've been in three cyclones before, but this one has made me a little nervous because it's bigger than the ones I've been in, it could be a category four and it's heading directly for us," he told the ABC.