Thursday, January 6, 2011

Australian floods likely to last weeks, warns Queenlands premier

The northern Australian state of Queensland faces a flood of "biblical proportions" a local official warned as rising water levels caused the evacuation of tens of thousands of people.

The flooding has hit an area the size of France and Germany, affecting 200,000 people in more than 20 towns and cities.

Officials have warned householders to beware of venomous snakes and killer crocodiles that are threatening to invade flooded homes and businesses. About 200,000 people have been affected so far as at least six river systems experienced a flood surge following Australia's wettest spring on record. More than 1,000 people are staying in evacuation centers with that number expected to rise to 4,000 by the middle of the week. Ironically, the huge rains have come after prolonged years of drought in the normally dry continent-sized country.

The disaster has also closed several coal mines and Australia's biggest coal-exporting port. About half the country's wheat crop (right: flooded crops) is also expected to be rain-damaged. Bundaberg, a major port for sugar exports, has also been shut down. It was hit after debris from the floods flowed down river and damaged navigation beacons. The focus of the floods now seems to be on Rockhampton, which is expected to receive 30ft of water by the middle of this week with an estimated 40% of Rockhampton expected to be flooded.

Rockhampton Cut off in Massive Australian Floods

The last road into the Australian city of Rockhampton was tonight cut off by water as Queensland's premier, Anna Bligh (left), warned that the floods which have overwhelmed the state may not recede for weeks.

"It looks like Rockhampton is in the middle of an inland sea. The amount of water coming down these river systems is nothing short of astonishing," said Bligh on a visit to the city. "Given the scale and size of this disaster, and the prospect that we will see water sitting potentially for a couple of weeks, we will have major issues to deal with throughout January."

Rockhampton, a town of 77,000 people 370 miles north of Brisbane, lies close to the coast, on the Fitzroy, one of Australia's largest river systems. It is among the biggest of the 22 towns affected by the tide of flooding that has swept across the eastern Australian state of Queensland over the past three days, and also one of the worst hit.

All main routes to the south, north and west of the city have been cut by the rising water. Rail lines and the airport runways are also submerged and the floodwaters stretch for several miles in each direction. On the Bruce Highway to the south, one of the few things to rise above the water is the "Welcome to Rockhampton" sign.

"Rockhampton is an island," the town's mayor, Brad Carter, says. "You can look down a street for a kilometer and see nothing but water." As well as the human residents, the local wildlife has been caught off-guard by nature's excesses. Bewildered and hungry kangaroos can be seen gathered together on any scrap of high ground and at night the sound of bellowing cattle, lost and confused by the water, fills the air.

Rockhampton will be supplied by military helicopters and by barge. Fourteen tons of food and medical supplies were taken in today by road before the highway was cut off.

Police in Rockhampton have ordered residents to leave their homes as electricity is switched off in low-lying areas. Up to 40% of the town is expected to be affected when the river peaks. Seventy people have registered at the evacuation center in the city, though there is space for many more: rescue workers say the center can accommodate up to 1,500 people.

A 60-year-old man was reported to have drowned today after his car was washed off a road, bringing the number who have died to three since the flooding began on Christmas Day. Two other men travelling in the same car, aged 19 and 40, survived the accident. Ten have died since the start of the wet season in Queensland a month ago.

Some residents did not want to evacuate until later so they could rescue more of their possessions. However, many were put off by the arrival of scores of deadly brown snakes. "I shot 17 in one day, and a woman down the road shot 26," a resident says. "They come out of the water looking for dry ground all day, but they can kill you just as quick as the floods can."

Acting assistant police commissioner, Alistair Dawson, asked people not to drive through floodwaters. "I really want to urge people to be cautious around water," he said. "As soon as we can open roads, we will."

While some areas are braced for the full force of the flood, others have begun the clean-up. Julia Gillard, the prime minister, has announced grants of up to A$25,000 (£16,000) for small businesses affected by the crisis.

"The extent of flooding being experienced by Queensland is unprecedented, and requires a national and united response to provide as much support to communities as we can," she said.

Gillard paid tribute to the way people were coping with the crisis, and said the government would do all it could to help them recover. "We know there are far too many families who have had to leave not only their homes, but also their businesses. This targeted financial assistance will help them minimize their economic losses as they embark on the very difficult recovery period that lies ahead, and help businesses start trading as soon as possible," she said.

Gillard acknowledged that the clean-up bill would be in the order of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Queensland State Premier, Anna Bligh said the grants would help give some certainty to people affected by the crisis. "Making these grants available now means that primary producers, for example, can organize fodder drops for stranded cattle, knowing that there will be financial assistance for them," she said.

Queensland's massive coal industry has been devastated by the flooding. "We have three-quarters of our coal fields unable to operate and unable to supply markets," Bligh told ABC Television. "There is likely to be a significant long-term effect from that – and not only nationally but internationally," she said.

Coal is Australia's biggest export earner, responsible for about A$55bn in annual revenue. The country's booming resources sector has been largely responsible for the strength of the economy in the past two years.

Roads to the south and west are also cut by floodwaters as is the rail network and the city's airport, which usually caters for 70,000 passengers a month.

The Guardian, "Australian floods likely to last for weeks, Queensland premier warns", accessed January 3, 2011
The Telegraph, "Australia floods: It's like living in the middle of an ocean", accessed January 3, 2011
The Guardian, "'Biblical' floods hit Queensland and leave tens of thousands homeless", accessed January 4, 2011

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