By James Regan
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Coastal residents in northeast Australia were urged on Thursday to prepare for dangerous tidal surges along the Great Barrier Reef and stay indoors when a powerful tropical cyclone hits.
Cyclone Nathan was abut 300 km (185 miles) east-northeast of the holiday town of Cooktown, moving at 8 kph (5 mph) and intensifying as it approached land.
It is expected to hit the coast on Friday.
"Nobody's around," said David Smith, owner of the ScubaDave diving school. "Everyone that came to the reef to dive is gone and won't be back until after Nathan passes."
A month ago, Cyclone Marcia slammed into the southern part of the same coast, causing billions of dollars in damage and leaving thousands homeless or without electricity.
Meteorologists predict Nathan will churn up winds nearing 300 kph (185 mph) from late on Thursday.
The sea is likely to rise steadily up to a level well above the normal tide, with damaging waves and flooding of some low-lying but g areas, which could also extend some way inland," the Bureau of Meteorology said.
Emergency officials said hundreds of residents, along with workers at a silica mine and the Lizard Island resort on the Great Barrier Reef had been evacuated.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said up to 9,000 people could be directly in the path of the cyclone by the time it builds to category four strength, the second highest level.
"A category four crossing is very serious," she told reporters. "To be safe, you must stay in your homes."
Queensland Fire and Emergency Services regional director Wayne Coutts said residents had limited time to prepare and people should be ready for a loss of power and water.
The cyclone is small in terms of area but has entered a climatic environment in which rapid intensification can occur, meteorologists said.
Emergency workers were counting on the cyclone coming ashore close to a low tide, mitigating the force of a storm surge.
The cyclone is expected to lose much of its punch over land but meteorologists warned it could reform again if it reaches the warm waters of the Gulf of Carpentaria, 250 km (155 miles) from the coast.
The archipelago nation of Vanuatu was devastated last week by Cyclone Pam, one of the worst storms ever to hit the South Pacific.
(Editing by Robert Birsel)