Australia floods recede to reveal extent of damage

By John Pye

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Jan. 13 2011 2:55 p.m. MST

A street is flooded in the city center of Brisbane, Australia, Thursday, Jan. 13, 2011. Floodwaters washing through Australia's third-largest city crested Thursday just shy of record levels but high enough to submerge entire neighborhoods and cause damage one official likened to the aftermath of war.

Tertius Pickard, Associated Press

POSTMANS RIDGE, Australia — Deadly floodwaters that swamped Australia's third-largest city were receding Friday, revealing streets and homes covered in a thick layer of putrid sludge.

Thirty-thousand homes and businesses were swamped by the muddy waters and tens of thousands of homes remained without power in one of Australia's worst natural disasters. In towns upstream of Brisbane, soldiers picked their way through debris looking for more victims. The death toll stood at 25, and 61 people were still missing.

"We all need to be very patient," Queensland state Premier Anna Bligh told the Nine Network. "Inevitably, we will see a lot of pain and grief."

The slow-motion inundation of Brisbane on Wednesday night — played out live on television before a nation transfixed — was a critical moment in flooding that has built for weeks as rain fell incessantly across Australia's tropical northeast.

The emergency is not over, but Brisbane's escape from what forecasters had predicted would be a flood worse than one that laid waste to much of the city 37 years ago triggered relief nationwide.

One man drowned Thursday when he was sucked into a storm drain as he tried to check on his father's home in a swamped Brisbane neighborhood. Officials said they expect to find more bodies farther upstream as they finally got access to hamlets struck by flash flooding on Monday.

The deadly floodwaters began dropping shortly after cresting about three feet (one meter) below the depth of 1974 floods that swept through Brisbane and set a benchmark for disaster. Still, 30,000 homes and business were inundated — many all the way up to their terra-cotta roof tiles.

Water was still high in some areas Friday, but had pulled back dramatically in others to reveal mountains of muddy debris. Garbage trucks began moving through the city's sludgy streets as the cleanup began — a task Bligh warned would be massive.

"We've seen three-quarters of our state having experienced the devastation of raging floodwaters and we now face a reconstruction task of postwar proportions," Bligh said.

The flooding across Queensland has submerged dozens of towns — some three times — and left an area the size of Germany and France combined under water. Highways and rail lines have been washed away in the disaster, which is shaping up to be Australia's costliest. Damage estimates were already at $5 billion before the floodwaters swamped Brisbane.

At least 61 people are still missing, most of them from around Toowoomba, a city west of Brisbane that saw massive flash floods on Monday. Fourteen died in that flood alone, including two whose bodies were found on Thursday. Deputy Police Commissioner Ian Stewart warned that number was likely to rise as search and rescue teams are able to move into more devastated areas.

"We've got to brace ourselves for more bad news," Stewart said.

With decent access to the region between Brisbane and Toowoomba for the first time, more than 200 police and soldiers fanned out across the stricken Lockyer Valley in buses, helicopters and amphibious military vehicles on Thursday.

At Postmans Ridge, about 55 miles (90 kilometers) west of Brisbane, about two dozen soldiers wearing jungle camouflage uniforms and police in dark coveralls picked their way methodically through large trees flattened along a creek banks and a floodplain strewn with debris. Tractor-trailer trucks lay broken in two, boats were crushed and the body of a horse was wedged between a downed tree and the sodden ground.

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