Residents flee Brisbane as flood threat grows in Australia


Sydney : Floodwaters rolled into Brisbane Tuesday as Queenslanders were primed for deaths by the dozen, massive destruction and a recovery that could take years and cost billions of dollars.

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Roads were closed and residents of low-lying West End began moving out as the floods that have affected half of Queensland hit Brisbane, the state capital and Australia’s third-largest city.

Forecasts for the next 48 hours recalled those that presaged catastrophic 1974 flooding in which 6,700 of the city’s houses were inundated and 14 lives lost.

Brisbane, a city of two million and the centre of the state’s most populous region, was put on flood alert after a flash flood Monday tore through the Lockyer Valley town of Toowoomba, 126 km to the west.

“The nation does need to brace itself for the fact that the death toll as a result of yesterday’s flash flooding and walls of water is likely to rise,” Prime Minister Julia Gillard said.

The tally in Toowoomba stands at eight, but with at least 72 people unaccounted for, Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said: “We expect that figure to rise and potentially quite dramatically.”

Weather forecaster Brett Harrison warned that continued torrential rain would augment the floodwaters barrelling toward Brisbane.

“Everything’s so saturated at the moment that it doesn’t take too much rain to increase the water levels on the ground,” he said.

With the deluge so great and the floodwaters rising so fast, what was expected to be an emergency later in the week arrived early.

“I’m really clueless as to what’s going on,” West End resident Jodie Craig told national broadcaster ABC. “People are just telling me West End’s been told to evacuate. I really don’t know.”

At the Go Between Bridge at West End, police patrol cars were turning cars back and closing roads. Commuters were warned that buses and trains would soon stop running. Car parks were being cleared.

Queensland Roads Minister Craig Wallace appealed to people to avoid further loss of life by not trying to drive on flooded highways.

“I can’t make it any clearer: If you don’t have a good reason to be out on the roads, just don’t go,” Wallace said. “New flood records are being registered right across the state. Evacuations may be needed, and we need roads clear.”

Graeme Lehmann, the mayor of Somerset Regional Council, said he had people in the town of Esk, 110 km west of Brisbane, waiting to be rescued but that all helicopters were busy.

“We’ve people standing on roofs and on islands that have been cut off by floodwater,” he said. “The way the water’s running, it’s even too fast for our flood boats.”

Asked if the army should be called in, he replied: “It’s nearly got that way. Any help would be greatly appreciated. I think it’s come to a stage where something like that has to happen.”

Lehmann said an immediate concern was just getting Esk people away from the raging waters. Setting up evacuation centres and providing food was secondary, he said.

“I urge people to head for higher ground even though they might feel like staying with their homes and whatever,” he said. “Just head for higher ground.”

Flooding, now into its third week, has affected half of Queensland – an area the size of France and Germany combined – and dislocated the economically vital coal industry; wrecked harvests of wheat, sugar cane and cotton; and racked up an infrastructure repair bill of at least five billion Australian dollars ($4.9 billion).

Bligh praised emergency services workers braving raging torrents to pluck people from trees and house roofs.

“We know we have people stranded and lost,” Bligh said, her voice faltering. “It might be breaking our hearts at the moment, but it will not break our will.”

In Grantham, downstream from Toowoomba, people spent all night on their roofs waiting for first light and a possible helicopter rescue.

“There were houses floating past,” Grantham resident Christopher Field told national broadcaster ABC after his rescue. “I had an elderly man come out and just give me a hug earlier, in tears. He’d lost his house.”