Brisbane awash as deadly flood arrives

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

SYDNEY - Floods barrelled through Brisbane Wednesday, threatening almost 20,000 dwellings and sending residents of the Queensland state capital scurrying to be safe from raging waters expected to crest within 24 hours.

Australia’s third-biggest city braced for a soaking worse than in 1974, when the Brisbane river peaked at 5.45 metres and 9,700 houses had water through them.

Ipswich, 30 km to the southwest and with a population of 140,000, was one-third underwater as the flood advanced on Brisbane and its two million people.

Thousands were in evacuation centres.

“This is going to be a big flood and they ought to evacuate,” Brisbane Lord Mayor Campbell Newman said. “We have room for 10,000 people, perhaps 18,000.”

Newman said computer modeling showed the water peaking at 5.5 metres and flooding 19,700 homes and 3,500 businesses.

“People aren’t realizing that they need to get out because they think the river’s a bit further away, but they’re getting surrounded,” firefighter Doug May told Australia’s AAP news agency while shooing people from homes destined for flooding.

There was some good news: the Bureau of Meteorology said clear skies betokened the longed-for break in the rain.

“It’s very eerie here today because we have an absolutely beautiful blue sky, a perfect Queensland summer day,” Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said. “But people can take no comfort from the blue sky. The rain has already done its damage in the catchment of our river system and this water is coming down at great speed.”

Supermarket shelves have been stripped of groceries by frantic shoppers. Householders exasperated by long queues to get sandbags have improvised with plastic bags filled with newspapers serving as fortification against waters that in Ipswich rose at a rate of one metre an hour early Wednesday.

Power has been turned off in parts of the city for safety reasons, petrol is being rationed, the mobile phone network is faltering because it is running on battery power.

Residents were being urged to stay out of floodwaters because of contamination from inundated sewerage works.

Ipswich Mayor Paul Pisasale said the tide of human misery was hard to take. “The water’s rising and it’s swallowing up your city - it makes it very hard,” he said.

Queensland’s floods have been a month-long moving disaster with 12 confirmed deaths and 51 people unaccounted for as successive towns have been hit by floodwaters racing through the northeastern state to the Pacific Ocean.

Two-thirds of Queensland - an area bigger than France and Germany combined - is flooded, industry is at a standstill and agriculture beset by lost harvests.

The repair bill has been put at about $5 billion and lost production at about $8 billion.

Matthew Johnson, an economist at investment bank UBS, said the disaster would have a bigger impact on the Australian economy than Hurricane Katrina did on the US economy, with output shaved by one full percentage point in the first quarter of the year.

“This is a very grim situation, and Queensland is going to need us to stand shoulder to shoulder with Queenslanders over months and months and months of recovery,” Prime Minister Julia Gillard said.

People spoke of their amazement at the debris - trees, pontoons, yachts, motor boats, a catamaran - being sluiced down the swollen river.

Brisbane’s first casualty was a 4-year-old boy who was washed from a rescue boat into the torrent.

A caller to a local radio station said he had seen a houseboat with two terrified people aboard come careening down the raging river.

“They’ve gone under all the bridges, and I believe that the Water Police are coming up the river to try and grab onto them and get them to safety,” he said.

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