Image: A satellite image shows tropical cyclone Yasi
Tropical cyclone Yasi passing near the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu heading towards the coast of Australia on Jan. 31.
updated 1/31/2011 6:23:27 PM ET 2011-01-31T23:23:27

A strong tropical cyclone roaring toward Australia's flood-ravaged northeast will likely cause powerful and deadly flash-flooding, officials warned Tuesday, as residents braced for what's predicted to be one of the fiercest storms the region has ever seen.

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Cyclone Yasi was barreling toward the Queensland state coast as a strong Category 3 storm on Tuesday with winds up to 137 mph. It was expected to hit the coast Wednesday as a violent Category 4 storm with wind gusts up to 155 mph, dumping up to three feet of rain on communities already saturated from months of flooding.

"We could see very powerful flash flooding that will be dangerous and potentially deadly," Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said.

Yasi is expected to be the second storm to batter Queensland in a week. Cyclone Anthony hit the coast early Monday morning and quickly weakened from 80 mph winds to a tropical low. The storm uprooted trees and knocked down power lines in some areas but spared communities any major damage.

Queensland has already suffered months of flooding since heavy rains began lashing the state in November. The floodwaters killed 35 people, damaged or destroyed 30,000 homes and businesses and left Brisbane, the country's third-largest city and the state capital, under water for days.

The federal government has estimated the cost of the damage is already at $5.6 billion and likely to rise.

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Yasi is expected to strike somewhere along the state's north coast, largely avoiding areas to the south — including Brisbane — that have suffered the worst of the recent flooding. Still, Bligh said the storm's path could change and residents up and down the coast needed to be prepared.

"This is an event that we have to take seriously," Bligh said. "It may well be one of the largest and most significant cyclones that we've ever had to deal with."

Hamilton Island, a popular tourist destination off Queensland, began evacuating some visitors on Monday, and other islands nearby were considering doing the same, Bligh said. Some nursing homes along the coast were also evacuating residents and officials urged people living in low-lying areas to consider leaving their homes until the storm has passed.

"We're telling anyone in the low-lying areas they need to be moving today and find another place to go to," said Val Schier, mayor of the northern Queensland city of Cairns.

Deputy Police Commissioner Ian Stewart said residents should be prepared with flashlights, food and water.

"We ask people to take whatever action is necessary to protect themselves and their loved ones," Stewart said. "This is a very, very serious threat to the safety of our coastline and the safety of our community."

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