Cyclone Debbie is expected to have more severe winds than Cyclone Yasi did in 2011, with the now-category 3 storm claiming its first life on Monday.
The storm was upgraded on Monday morning, shortly after a tourist died in a car crash near Proserpine, as a result of the wild weather building in north Queensland.
Police said a 31-year-old woman died at the scene following the two-car crash at Cannon Valley, 140 kilometres north of Mackay, about 8am.
The incident happened on Shute Harbour Road, with the male driver uninjured and a second passenger receiving only minor injuries.
"We believe that's associated with this weather event," Police Commissioner Ian Stewart said.
The Bureau of Meteorology was expecting Cyclone Debbie to turn into a category 4 just before it made landfall between Rollingstone and Proserpine, predicted to be about 7 or 8am on Tuesday. Areas in the firing line included Townsville, Ayr and Airlie Beach.
According to the bureau's tracking map just after 11am, the core of the cyclone was forecast to make landfall close to Bowen.
Whitsunday Regional Council mayor Andrew Willcox said "it has taken a turn for the worse", adding the region had two cyclone shelters, one at Bowen State High School and the other at Proserpine State Primary School.
Cr Willcox said there was one small army crew in Bowen, with more troops able to be deployed from Townsville if needed.
BoM meteorologist Adam Blazak said from Monday morning onwards the system would head directly for the north Queensland coast over warm water and continue to grow. He added the system was expected to be a "low-end category 4" with most of the coastline to experience 120km/h winds and gusts over 200km/h in parts.
The Townsville Local Disaster Management Group warned locals that dangerous winds were expected to reach the city much earlier than first thought, with gusts of up to 100km/h developing in the city as early as 4pm on Monday afternoon.
The weather bureau was also forecasting a storm surge between Mackay and 530 kilometres north in Lucinda, with Mr Blazak warning "you don't want to muck around with a storm surge".
He said a two to three metre swell was expected along the northern coastline on Tuesday, which would be whipped up by the strong winds, as well as rainfall of about 200 millimetres across the region with some areas set to record up to 400 millimetres.
Locals continued to evacuate on Monday morning, as the category 2 cyclone turned west on its final approach to the coast.
Residents at Midge Point, north of Mackay, were ordered to evacuate on Monday morning, with the weather bureau expecting a strong tidal surge as a result of the cyclone.
Areas of the Whitsundays were told to evacuate on Sunday afternoon, while residents in the nearby Burdekin Shire Council region were also told to leave in the evening, including Alva Beach, Groper Creek, Jerona, Wunjunga and some areas of Rita Island.
This was followed by an alert from Townsville City Council for those living in Cape Cleveland, including Cungulla and Cleveland Palms, to evacuate from 6am on Monday.
Whitsunday Regional Council Mayor and Bowen resident Andrew Willcox said those who could not leave should stay with friends or family in "high, dry places".
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said winds up to 100km/h had already been recorded around the Whitsundays and Proserpine.
She said about 3500 residents had also been evacuated from the area between Home Hill and Proserpine, with a further 2000 told to leave from Bowen as well.
Ms Palaszczuk said winds were expected to be more severe than those that tore through the state's north when Cyclone Yasi crossed the coast in 2011. She pleaded with locals to "listen to the expert advice" because the "window of opportunity to leave is drastically closing".
Queensland Police Deputy Commissioner Steve Gollschewski reinforced the Premier's message, urging north Queenslanders to listen to advice from emergency services.
"If you are in a storm surge zone and are directed to move, you must move," he said.
"You can shelter in your house from wind, but you can't shelter from a storm surge."
More than 100 schools have been closed across the north Queensland coast and shopfronts in the small town centre of Ayr in north Queensland are being boarded up and filled with sandbags as locals make final preparations.
The Ayr CBD was teeming with business owners on Monday morning as they set about removing stock from shop windows, packing shopfronts with sandbags to prevent flooding and boarding up windows as a defence against flying debris.
Toyworld owner Chris Watt expected all the town's shop owners to be finished securing their businesses and be out of the area by midday, but he said flooding was his main concern not strongs wind, due to the sturdiness of the buildings.
"These buildings are old but really sturdy," he said.
"But I don't know how the trees outside are going to go."
Coral Coast Electrical worker Scott Heidke has been busy boarding up the windows.
"It's not going to stop the wind but the glass is pretty strong," he said
Mr Heidke said he would not be leaving his home, located 15km from Ayr.
The voluntary evacuation of residents from Ayr and nearby Home Hill took place on Monday morning.
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