Reporting from Sydney, Australia — Thousands of people were being evacuated from towns in northeastern Australia amid rising floodwaters that by Friday had left half of massive Queensland state inundated and affected more than 200,000 people.
Mandatory evacuations of 4,000 residents were underway in Rockhampton on the state's east coast, the latest populated area to be hit by flooding. Officials feared that the entire city of 76,000 people might be cut off by Monday.
The local government was dropping food on isolated rural properties cut off by the rising Fitzroy River. Federal officials offered the use of a Chinook and four Black Hawk helicopters to assist with evacuations. Rockhampton Mayor Brad Carter asked residents to leave before the situation worsened.
"We are strongly urging people to self-evacuate today and not to be complacent," he said. "This is a major flood event, and given the predicted levels, mandatory evacuations will be enforced."
Officials estimated that half of Queensland, which is more than 668,000 square miles, was affected by flooding. Rivers and creeks across the state have burst their banks.
Heavy rainfall caused extensive flooding in Queensland, as well as the states of New South Wales and Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory, with more rain to come. The wet December is the result of a cyclone season and the return of La Nina weather patterns.
The floods end a period of extreme drought. But instead of bringing comfort to farmers, the waters have wiped out the first good crops many had seen in years.
"It is impossible not to feel for those Queensland families who have lost everything in these floods, particularly so close to Christmas," state Premier Anna Bligh said while visiting one of the worst-hit areas. "The resilience of these Queensland communities is certainly on display, but the worst is far from over and they need our help."
In Rockhampton, the river was expected to continue to rise through Tuesday, remain at high levels for at least a week and affect as much as 40% of the city. The Nogoa River, about 250 miles from Rockhampton, crested Thursday evening, sending a surge downstream that is expected to take about a week to reach Rockhampton.
Eight regions in Queensland have been declared disaster areas by the state government.
The Australian Red Cross has flown emergency response teams to Rockhampton and other affected towns in the state, including Dalby, where fresh drinking water was being trucked in. The relief organization began establishing shelters early in the week.
Hundreds of people have already sought shelter with the Red Cross, including all 100 people of the township of Condamine, who were airlifted out Thursday evening.
"A number of towns have been completely cut off so we're having to fly in by helicopter and charter plane staff and volunteers from around the state and around the country," said Greg Goebel, the Red Cross' executive director in Queensland.
The Queensland government put out warnings reminding residents of possible waterborne diseases because the floods have destroyed rural septic systems and killed large numbers of livestock. The state's mines also were under close surveillance, with concern that runoff water could be contaminated. The state was offering emergency financial assistance to those affected by the floods. The final cost is not likely to be known for weeks, but damage to the town of Bundaberg has been estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard has said those in affected areas would receive grants and Queensland would get federal funding to help rebuild damaged infrastructure, including schools, roads and bridges.
Bennett is a special correspondent.