Forecasters say a tropical low 760km off Cairns could form into a category one cyclone when it reaches the mainland on Thursday afternoon.

Townsville’s disaster management team has been activated as a potential cyclone brews off north Queensland.

The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) issued a cyclone watch warning on Tuesday afternoon for northern communities from Port Douglas, north of Cairns, to Proserpine, north of Mackay.

The tropical low was sitting about 760 kilometres east northeast of Cairns on Tuesday afternoon and was headed towards the mainland at a speed of 9km/h.

Forecasters say it could form into a category one cyclone when it reaches the mainland on Thursday afternoon.

Up to 400 millimetres of rain and gale force winds are expected to batter some areas. Falls of over 100mm have already been recorded in areas north and south of Cairns.

“The take-home message is it could remain a low or could be a category one cyclone,” BOM forecaster Julian De Morton told AAP.

“But regardless it’s going to be windy, there’s going to be heavy rain and there’s going to be abnormally high tides and in some areas possibly destructive winds.”

Premier Campbell Newman urged Queenslanders to be prepared.

“Just be ready,” he said.

“I don’t think anybody wants to go through the trauma and pain of what we’ve seen in the last few years.”

Townsville Mayor Jenny Hill says the city’s disaster management group had been activated on Tuesday afternoon.

“We’ve assessed the real risk for us and we believe there’s a risk of high winds on the king tides which could mean storm inundation in low-lying areas,” she said.

“We’ve made sand available and we’re asking people (in low-lying areas) to assess the risk to their properties and how they might seal their homes to prevent inundation.”

Cairns councillor Steve Brain, who chairs the city’s disaster management group, said emergency groups were meeting the determine the best course of action.

He said the District Disaster Coordination Centre was being set up and would activate if the storm crossed land and formed a cyclone.

But Mr Brain said current models predicted the storm would bring heavy rain rather than destructive winds.

Cassowary Coast Regional Council Mayor Bill Shannon says he doesn’t want the region to have another cyclone.

But he says heavy rain would help drought-affected inland communities.

The Bureau of Meteorology says gales could develop between Port Douglas and Proserpine on Wednesday afternoon and possibly Thursday.

Heavy rain, which may lead to flash flooding, is expected to batter coastal areas from Cooktown to Cardwell and the Atherton Tablelands, inland from Cairns.

Heavy rain is also expected in Herbert, lower Burdekin, Bowen and the Whitsundays region on Wednesday afternoon and possibly Thursday.

As the tropical low approaches the mainland on Wednesday and Thursday a storm tide is expected between Port Douglas and Proserpine. This could produce large waves and cause minor flooding along the shoreline.

The bureau is warning residents in these areas to take measures to protect their property from flooding.

Queensland Fire and Rescue Service Commissioner Lee Johnson said it was important to prepare, regardless of whether the storm became a cyclone or not.

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