With wind gusts of almost 300km/h at its “very destructive” core, the category 5 storm was buffeting the coast with only a fraction of its power, generating 90km/h gusts across the red alert area, where residents have been warned it’s too late to leave.
But there was some late good news for the largest towns in the area, Broome and Port Hedland, which were forecast to escape the most most dangerous centre of the storm.
Port Hedland mayor Peter Carter was confident his town of 15,600 was prepared to ride out the storm and Broome was being used as an evacuation hub after being declared relatively safe earlier on Thursday.
Ilsa, upgraded to a category 5 storm on Thursday evening, was expected to cross the coast between the tiny outposts of De Grey and Pardoo Roadhouse around midnight (2am Friday AEST), by which point wind gusts are expected to hit 315km/h.
A red alert directing residents to shelter and warning it was too late to leave extended from south of Bidyadanga to Port Hedland and inland to Marble Bar and Nullagine.
The bureau’s update just before 10pm (midnight AEST) said the powerful weather system was 100 kilometres north-east of Port Hedland, and heading south-east at an increased speed of 18km/h.
On Bedout Island, off the Pilbara coast, sustained winds had already hit 205km/h, with gusts of 288km/h.
Earlier on Thursday, Department of Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Darren Klemm told the community people under red alert needed to shelter in place and could not go outside.
“It is incredibly dangerous to be out in those environments and it risks the lives of first responders to go out there and protect those people,” Klemm said.
“We do not want to see anyone outside of rated structures once the red alert is put on.”
‘Calm before the storm’
The Port Hedland mayor said the town’s infrastructure was strong enough to deal with what was to come and residents had spent the day tidying up to reduce the threat from flying debris.
“We know it’s very close off the coast, but at the moment, it’s very surreal,” Carter told 9News late on Thursday night.
“It’s like the calm before the storm. But we know what’s coming and our residents are prepared for it and ready for it.”
While warning all cyclones were unpredictable, the mayor said he hoped Ilsa would pass quickly enough to allow DFES officials to give residents the all-clear to leave their houses some time on Friday.
“At the moment, it’s a fast moving cyclone, so hopefully it will pass us very quickly and do less damage,” he said.
A yellow alert has been issued for people south of Port Hedland to Whim Creek, extending inland past Parnngurr, including Telfer, and Kunawarritji, with residents told to take action and get ready to shelter from the cyclone.
Abnormally high tides are also possible between Bidyadanga and Port Hedland as the system crosses the coast tonight or during early Friday morning.
Meteorologists have predicted in some locations the tide may be close to or exceed the highest astronomical tide of the year.
People hunker down, head to evacuation centres
This afternoon, people started hunkering down in Port Hedland ahead of the red alert.
Others left for evacuation centres where authorities were sandbagging.
Josh Lockyer, who moved to Port Hedland from Newman recently, told 9News he was “preparing for the worst just in case” as he collected sandbags this afternoon.
“We’ve had a few cyclones come through there but not like this,” Lockyer said.
“We’ve got sandbags here to fill up, make sure the house doesn’t flood.”
Fellow resident and TAFE lecturer Dylan Whiteley also stocked up on sandbags this afternoon.
“The houses are built for it up here – should be alright – just got a bit of stuff in case of a surge in the backyard,” Whiteley said.
“All in all, I think we’re as prepared as we can be.
“Plenty of food, a few beers, it should be alright.”
SES Armadale team leader Ron Stroet is among the volunteers helping out on the ground.
“We’re all volunteers that have come up from our jobs in Perth, our families in Perth and it’s great to come up and help,” Stroet said.
Rain intensified between Port Hedland and Pardoo Roadhouse as the cyclone neared the coast.
By 11pm (1am AEST), the cyclone will have a “very destructive core”, the BoM said.
“Very destructive wind gusts up to 170km/h are possible at Telfer during Friday if the centre of Isla passes close by,” the BoM said.
Authorities are checking on remote Aboriginal communities in the region, along with mines and tourist sites.
For the area south of Broome to Port Hedland, wind gusts of up to 90km/h are forecast and will move towards Whim Creek.
Telfer, Parnngurr and Kiwirrkurra are next in the firing line by Friday night.
Heavy rainfall from the western Kimberley to the eastern Pilbara will bring 150 to 300mm of rain when Isla hits.
The system is expected to weaken overnight on Friday as it moves east into southern parts of the Northern Territory.
‘I am really scared right now’
Campers have evacuated from popular tourist spot Eighty Mile Beach, 250km north of Port Hedland, after warnings the sanctuary could take a direct hit.
Roadhouses along the Great Northern Highway are shutting up shop, including in Pardoo, which was hit by Cyclone Rusty 10 years ago.
Chef Robert Declaro served his final customers and headed for Port Hedland to seek refuge.
“Since yesterday I can’t sleep much because this isn’t ordinary. I’m really scared right now,” he said.
However, others aren’t rushing off as quickly.
Queenslander Lisa Ashford, who is on a record-breaking ride around Australia, is hoping to outcycle the cyclone.
“I’ll shoot past Port Hedland today and end up in Karratha,” she said on Wednesday afternoon.
“Tomorrow night I’ll be another 200 kilometres south.”
Emergency services said the winds were likely to pick up on Thursday, prompting Port Hedland residents to collect and dispose of debris on Wednesday.
An estimated $300 million of trade that moves in and out of the local port daily was halted.
“It’s just a case of securing as best you can and get yourself in a safer place, away from the main impact of the storm,” Philip Christy from Pilbara Ports Authority said.
A State Emergency Service (SES) taskforce manned the ground with another small army of 10 volunteers arriving from Perth and packing sandbags.
Closer to Ilsa’s path, the De Grey River is about to be inundated with more than 200 millimetres of rain a day.
“Some of those areas in the inland parts of the Pilbara might see a year’s worth of rain in a couple of days,” Todd Smith from the BoM said.
Communities can call the State Emergency Service on 132 500 for assistance and triple zero in the case of a life-threatening emergency.