Mud, toil, tears and sweat as Brisbane cleans up

Saturday, January 15, 2011

SYDNEY - An estimated 7,000 volunteers deluged Brisbane Saturday as Australia’s third-largest city got cracking on a clean-up after the worst floods in 36 years.

Armed with buckets and spades, they formed work gangs in the low-lying areas of the Queensland state capital that took the brunt of the floodwaters when the Brisbane River peaked at a level not seen since 1974.

More than 4,000 people are still in evacuation centres after 17,000 homes and 3,000 businesses were either fully or partially swamped in the east-coast state’s worst-ever natural disaster.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said US President Barack Obama had telephoned her with an offer of help in a relief effort that could take years.

“I’ve specifically spoken to President Obama about the kind of assistance we might need as we move into the recovery phase and we’ll be working with the United States on their expertise, which may be able to assist us in this period,” Gillard said.

Last week Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said Australia would not be accepting any outside assistance except that from New Zealand, which sent a team of relief workers.

Cash contributions have been received from India, China and other countries. Sri Lanka has sent a consignment of tea that it said would be enough for 250,000 cups of tea.

Around 30,000 premises are still without power because authorities are not allowing reconnections until power company Energex Ltd makes safety checks.

An Energex spokesman said 500 electricians were being rushed to Brisbane from other cities to ramp up reconnections.

More than 1,200 soldiers have been drafted in to help shift oceans of mud. A navy minesweeper has been brought in to locate and remove the boats, barges, floating restaurants and pontoons that were sluiced to their destruction.

It is the biggest army deployment since the military were brought in after a tropical storm, Cyclone Tracy, pummelled the far-north city of Darwin in 1974.

Queensland hopes it is at the tail-end of a month-long rolling disaster that has seen two-thirds of the state go under water after incessant rain coursed through rivers that empty into the Pacific Ocean.

In the past fortnight 16 people are known to have lost their lives and the roster of those missing has zigzagged between 70 and 20.

“There’s been some volatility in the number of missing persons,” Queensland Police Deputy Commissioner Ian Stewart admitted. “Unfortunately, our list has got a registered 28 people that we’re investigating as missing persons.”

US-based banking house Citigroup Inc estimated the cost to the Australian economy of the floods at 20 billion Australian dollars ($19 billion).

The bill calculated by investment bank JP Morgan came in at 13 billion Australian dollars, or around 1 percent of annual economic output.

“Food prices will spike, electricity prices are going up, there will be coal shortages and petrol prices will go up,” JP Morgan economist Helen Kevens said. “The skill shortage will put huge pressure on wages.”

The volunteers labouring in Brisbane’s muddied streets were doing so under brilliant blue skies, a rarity in Australia’s “Sunshine State” the past four weeks.

“We came down today because we felt it was something we needed to do,” volunteer Darren Moss told Australia’s AAP news agency. He was evacuated Wednesday but returned to find his home intact.

Most roads are open and public transport is back on. Supermarkets that had been stripped bare by panicked shoppers are restocked. The phones are back on and river bridges are open again.

Toowoomba, a town 126 km to the west of Brisbane that had a wall of water go through it last week, is trying for a bit of normalcy.

Matthew Kirnast told national broadcaster ABC that, rain or shine, his wedding was going ahead, although the reception would be delayed until next Saturday.

“It’s a bit surreal,” he said. “Everywhere got wet, so there’s that wet-carpet smell pretty much around the whole city, so you can’t avoid that. Other than that, it’s great.”

Filed under: Accidents and Disasters

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