Reporting from Sydney, Australia — Major portions of Brisbane resembled a watery ghost town Thursday as muddy waters from the overflowing Brisbane River inundated Australia's third-largest city, part of massive flooding throughout Queensland state that has left officials and residents reeling.
In Brisbane, a city of 2 million, 11,900 homes and 2,500 businesses were completely flooded, an additional 14,700 houses and 2,500 businesses were at least partly covered by water, and 120,000 houses were without power, Mayor Campbell Newman said. One man was killed after being swept into a storm drain.
Across Queensland, more than 20 people have died, dozens of towns have been submerged — some three times since late November — and more than 74 people are missing across an area the size of Germany and France that is still under water. The death toll is expected to rise as water recedes and officials make grim discoveries.
More than 2.5 million residents have been affected by the flooding that, according to Queensland Premier Anna Bligh, has caused at least $5 billion worth of damage, forced the evacuation of tens of thousands and may leave many homeless for months.
"Some people will return to their homes to discover they will never be habitable again," Bligh said.
The Brisbane River peaked at about 14.5 feet Thursday — about three feet below the worst fears of officials, although Bligh said the rebuilding process was likely to be of "postwar" proportions.
Entire neighborhoods have been devastated, and water remains above the roofs of many buildings. Citizens braved the elements in kayaks, rowboats, even surfboards.
Lucinda Kent, 19, said Thursday that while "everything is looking better this morning," her home was still without power, and they were concerned about the water supply.
The flooding was "pretty nerve-racking," she said. An aunt trapped in an apartment building in the city had called her parents to ask for help, but it was too late to do anything "because all the bridges are out."
"It was definitely scary," Kent said.
Analysts said Queensland's coal industry has been virtually shut down, costing millions of dollars in deferred exports and sending global prices higher. Vegetable, fruit and sugarcane crops in the rich agricultural region have been wiped out, and prices are expected to skyrocket as a result.
In the Lockyer Valley area west of Brisbane, a flash flood swept through the town of Toowoomba this week, killing at least 14 people and leaving more than 70 missing.
Poor weather has continued to hamper rescue operations there and in other parts of the state.
Police have warned that there are likely to be gruesome finds, and Bligh said the country should brace for disturbing discoveries in the days ahead.
"I don't think anything can prepare any of us for what we might see in the Lockyer Valley," she said in one of a series of news conferences she has been holding every two hours over the last few days.
Queensland police earlier had declined to comment on suggestions that there was a "mass grave" underneath a bridge in the Lockyer Valley town of Grantham, which police have cordoned off as they search for bodies.
"The problem we have is that the people have been washed out of their homes, and some of the homes are actually destroyed, like bombs have gone off there," Ian Stewart, Queensland's deputy police commissioner, told Australian television Thursday. "It's a war scene in the Lockyer Valley today."
Bennett is a special correspondent.
Times wire services were used in compiling this report.