All schools in south-east Queensland closed as ex-Cyclone Debbie moves in

Christopher Knaus
Damage on Hamilton Island after Cyclone Debbie. All schools in south-east Queensland have been ordered to close. Photograph: Dennis Garrett/AFP/Getty Images

All schools in Queensland’s south-east corner have been ordered to close and employers urged to send staff home early owing to bad weather caused by the former tropical cyclone Debbie.

The government said the wild weather meant schools would be closed for the day, with the worst of the high winds and very heavy rain expected on Thursday.

The Bureau of Meteorology is warning that a large area in south-east Queensland will experience destructive winds and rainfall in excess of 200mm, with isolated pockets of 400mm possible in some regions.

The Queensland Fire and Emergency Services commissioner, Katarina Carroll, has warned conditions in Brisbane and south-east Queensland will be “pretty horrendous” on Thursday afternoon.

“I reiterate the message made a number of times, if you don’t have to be on the roads, please don’t,” Carroll said in a briefing on Thursday morning.

The Queensland police commissioner, Ian Stewart, urged Queenslanders to stay inside and not to underestimate the dangers of the heavy rainfall.

“We saw what happened five or six years ago when we had the summer of disasters,” Stewart said.

The deputy premier, Jackie Trad, warned of the potential for public transport closures later in the day and urged employers to send staff home at lunchtime.

She said the evening peak hour would be a “nightmare”.

Meanwhile, in the north of the state, tourists stranded on Hamilton and Daydream islands are expected to be evacuated on Thursday as ex-Cyclone Debbie moves to south-east Queensland, prompting warnings of heavy rainfall and destructive winds in Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

The Whitsundays Islands were battered by winds of up to 263km/h on Tuesday, causing structural damage, tossing golf buggies and debris about, bringing down trees and cutting off power.

A Queensland Fire and Emergency Services assistant commissioner, Mark Roche, said evacuations from the islands would begin on Thursday. “They’ve been through a significant experience, but they are safe,” Roche told Channel Nine. “That’s the main thing.”

The heavy rainfall continued on the Queensland north coast overnight, and emergency services battled horrendous conditions to rescue residents from rooftops and cars trapped in floodwaters.

Ergon Energy have managed to restore power to 7,000 homes but said on Thursday morning that 61,000 remain in blackout, largely in the Whitsunday and Mackay areas, including in Airlie Beach, Cannonvale, Proserpine, Bowen, Sarina, Moranbah and Clermont.

The damage to sugar cane and tomato crops caused by Cyclone Debbie has been severe. Late on Wednesday night the federal governmentt pledged assistance to the region, including to primary producers.

A local Liberal National MP, George Christensen, said up to 15% of the sugar cane crop could be lost. Christensen said he expected $25,000 grants to be available to primary producers under the national disaster recovery relief arrangements but said he was still working through the detail of what had been announced.

“In the Burdekin, the crops are relatively intact, actually, in Proserpine and Mackay, that’s where the biggest problem has been, for sugar obviously, and in Bowen too,” he told ABC radio on Thursday morning. “The losses could be up to 15% for broken cane and lodged cane that they have to contend with.”

He said a lot of smaller crops had not survived the cyclone. “Some of the crops just do not withstand a massive drenching at one point in time, so it remains to be seen what the losses will be there, but it will be immense, I’d say.”

AgForce Queensland’s regional manager, Paul Bourke, said it was too early to assess the extent of damage. “We will, over the coming days work with the government to ascertain what the level of damage is and where that assistance would be best targeted,” Bourke said on Thursday.

“It’s just too early to get out there and assess that crop damage, we know it’s real.”

The Bruce Highway is still blocked in several locations and many communities are still cut off.

The Queensland police deputy commissioner Steve Gollschewski said rescuers were battling extremely difficult conditions, although Mackay appeared to be returning to normal after very heavy rainfall and flooding on Wednesday.

“This is a very difficult operating environment,” Gollschewski said at a briefing on Thursday. “We do not have complete understanding of what is happening.”

“We are confident Mackay city itself has returned, somewhat, to normal. However, we are waiting for further briefs as the day commences to see what that looks like.

“But our concerns are really in the rural areas to the west of Mackay in the Pioneer Valley, further south to Sarina, where we have seen the rescues.

“As we get into the evening tonight, it is going to get quite nasty, or nastier. We don’t need people out and about where there is lots of water.”

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