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Winds of 100kmh could hit the region as early as this morning, with the worst cyclone since Yasi expected to hit somewhere between Cape Melville and Cape Tribulation tonight.
"It's coming in faster and bigger than we first thought it was going to," Cook Shire Mayor Peter Scott said while boarding up windows of his family home on Thursday.
Ita was 285km off the mainland on Thursday night and the weather bureau says it poses a "significant threat" to far northern communities.
It's expected to bring gales up to 280 km/h, heavy rain and storm surges when it hits the coast, with 9000 people directly in its path.
A cyclone warning is place from Lockhart River to Innisfail, extending hundreds of kilometres inland, and a cyclone watch alert is current from Innisfail to Cardwell.
Locals and tourists spent Thursday night in the Cooktown cyclone shelter, which opened about 12 hours earlier after the storm was upgraded.
"I've heard it's going to intensify and it's going to get really scary," Dottie Bostoch told AAP as she made her makeshift bed in the Cooktown shelter on Thursday night.
Ms Bostoch, 77, who took her dog Leo along to the shelter, said she feared her house would cave in when the potentially destructive winds hit.
Bruce Jenkins, 68, also spent the night at the centre with his cat Busta.
"I get all jittery when there's a cyclone and so does my cat," he said.
Others in Cooktown spent Thursday boarding up their homes, clearing yards and stocking up on supplies.
The weather bureau says while Ita was intense, it's a smaller system and would move slower than category five Cyclone Yasi in 2011 and category four Cyclone Larry in 2006.