(Refiles with dateline, byline)
By Rob Taylor
CAIRNS, Australia, Feb 2 (Reuters) - Australian police turned people away from jammed evacuation shelters on Wednesday as a huge cyclone neared the northeast coast, leaving many to wait outside in the open, praying police will relent and squeeze them in before the storm arrives.
Cyclone Yasi is the most dangerous cyclone to come ashore in Australia in a century, forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate their homes and overwhelm cyclone shelters which are already refuge to more than 10,000.
At a shopping centre which serves as a shelter in Cairns, a tourist city destined to feel Yasi’s wrath within hours, Selwyn Hughes stood with his family in the uncovered carpark and said his only comfort for the moment was in numbers.
“There are so many of us here. Surely they have to do something, find somewhere safer to move us to before it arrives,” Hughes said, squatting on a pink suitcase with his five children, aged two to 13.
The family’s only possessions were a small box of food, including a tin of powdered milk, and clothes and a pram for two-year-old daughter Minoota.
Around them 80 others sat on the ground and shared advice or sympathy.
At a steel barrier gate, four police guarded entry to a ramp up to a cinema complex being used as a rooftop entry point to the makeshift cyclone shelter, as grey clouds swirled and winds whistled over fences and rooftops.
“It’s making it very difficult. We’re disappointed we can’t take any more people in, but I’ve been through in there and it’s just not safe,” said acting police inspector John Bosnjak.
Inside, more than 2,000 people lay in front of shuttered shops and foodcourts, or sat on empty tables, while children played on moving walkways.
All seven evacuations centres set up in the region have reached capacity ahead of Yasi’s arrival, filled also by hundreds of foreign backpackers sent away from usually thriving waterfront hostels.
Around 30,000 people in low-lying suburbs evacuated their homes and poured into the centres when doors opened at about 6 am, or bunkered down in the homes of friends at the urging of the government, helping ease the strain on shelters.
Others joined a stream of traffic heading south.
Cairns Mayor Val Schier advised residents to batten down in their own homes, while last-minute preparations were also being made to open an eighth shelter and move people there by bus.
The last category 5 cyclone to hit the Queensland coast was in 1918. That storm killed almost 90 people.
Sitting near Hughes, Morgana Bartlett watched over her bronze and green pet Rainbow Lorikeet, named Pumpkin, which like other pets was not allowed inside the centre, even in a cage.
“If they don’t take her, they don’t take me,” she said. (Editing by Mark Bendeich and Nick Macfie)