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Australia flood death toll rises; rains cause more havoc

Floodwaters cut off towns and submerge buildings in Queensland state. Forecasters say more rain is on the way.

January 04, 2011|By Jennifer Bennett, Los Angeles Times
  • Police rescue German tourists near the northern town of Jabiru after their car became stuck going through crocodile-infested waters.
Police rescue German tourists near the northern town of Jabiru after their… (Northern Territory police )

Reporting from Sydney, Australia — Floodwaters in Australia's Queensland state created havoc in at least 22 cities and towns throughout the region grappling with several weeks of devastating rains, officials said Monday.

At least three people have been killed in the flooding since Saturday, and Queensland officials said as many as 10 have died in weather-related incidents beginning in late November.

About 200,000 people have been affected by the flooding, with many leaving their homes and seeking rest and food at relief centers, officials said. Spillover from Fairbairn Dam, the second-largest catchment area in Australia, was causing evacuations and other problems in several towns.

In the city of Rockhampton, the Fitzroy River caused the closure of the Bruce and Capricorn highways to the south and east, along with the local airport.

"Rockhampton is now completely stranded — a town of 75,000 people, no airport, rail or road," Queensland Premier Anna Bligh told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard declared the scene from the air as "truly startling" after flying over the town of Emerald, where some residents were returning to clean up after being evacuated on New Year's Eve.

"You see how widespread the floodwaters are and how affected Emerald is, how many houses have been affected," she said. "The patches that are not covered by floodwaters are a lot less than the area that is covered by floodwaters, so it's a very tough time in Emerald."

Although waters have begun to recede in some areas, others are looking at a week in which the situation could get considerably worse. Forecasters warned of more rain.

The Australian Defense Force was flying supplies to Mackay in the north and planned to truck them down to Rockhampton while the road was still accessible. The Fitzroy River is expected to peak Thursday.

Emergency services personnel from other states are also likely to fly in to assist with the response to the flooding, which in many cases has affected areas that were already isolated. Many of Queensland's emergency workers have been on duty since before Christmas, and many have lost their own homes in the deluge.

Warren Bridson, acting assistant director-general of Emergency Management Queensland, said conditions called for a protracted response and recovery.

"While some towns' river systems are still rising, others are moving into recovery mode and looking to reestablish their homes and businesses," Bridson said.

The Australian Red Cross was anticipating that at least 2,000 people would be staying in its seven emergency shelters in central and southern Queensland by Monday evening, and was setting up more shelters for the towns of St. George and Surat, where officials say water levels have not yet peaked.

The town of Theodore, population 351, was evacuated during the weekend and two successive waves of water have submerged every building. Residents were staying in a mining camp in the town of Moura and will probably have to be moved to another location in the next few weeks.

St. George and Surat are expecting even worse.

Much of the water is spillover from Fairbairn Dam, with a maximum capacity that is five times that of Sydney Harbor. It is at 140% capacity, officials said.

"It's an enormous wall of water and it's slowly moving down the state and that's why some towns are being hit twice," Red Cross spokesman Michael Gillies Smith said. "Thousands of homes are going to be destroyed and some evacuation centers will be open for a number of weeks."

Greg Goebel, the Red Cross' executive director in Queensland, said his organization was rushing to get staff members to towns before the waters cut them off. Although people were returning home where they could, they were finding their residences inundated with mud and silt — and wildlife, he said.

"A lot of snakes have come out," Goebel said. "Residents have come home to find [highly venomous] red-bellied black snakes and brown snakes. And around Rockhampton there's certainly going to be an increase in crocodiles in creeks and streams."

"Country people are quite stoic in Australia, but it's wearing thin," he said. "It's a huge disaster. Some people won't get home to their homes for at least another week, 10 days."

Goebel said the Red Cross was also moving into its recovery stage, encouraging people to donate cash rather than goods, and would soon start sending outreach teams with trained counselors to help residents reestablish their lives.

Bennett is a special correspondent.

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