Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Eight Dead, Dozens Missing as Australia Flood Crisis Worsens

BRISBANE, Australia - At least eight people were killed and 72 missing after the latest downpour to hit Australia's flood-wracked Queensland state sent raging torrents rushing through several towns, washing away cars and houses, officials said Tuesday.

Emergency services officers plucked more than 40 people from houses isolated by the torrent that hit the Lockyer Valley with little warning on Monday, but thunderstorms and more driving rain were keeping helicopters from reaching an unknown number of other people still in danger on Tuesday morning.

Queensland state Premier Anna Bligh said there were "grave concerns" for at least 11 of the missing.

"Right now we have every possible available resource deployed into this region to search for those people that we know are missing," Bligh told Australia's Nine Network. "This is going to be I think a very grim day."

Queensland has been in the grip of its worst flooding for more than two weeks, after tropical downpours across a vast area of the state covered an area the size of France and Germany combined. Entire towns have been swamped, more than 200,000 people affected, and coal and farming industries virtually shut down. Monday's deaths took the death toll since late November to at least 18.

Until Monday, the flood crisis had been unfolding slowly as swollen rivers burst their banks and inundated towns as they moved downstream toward the ocean.

But Monday's flash flooding struck without warning in Toowoomba, a city of some 90,000 people nestled in mountains 2,300 feet above sea level. Bligh said an intense deluge fell over a concentrated area, sending a 26-foot, fast-moving torrent crashing through Toowoomba and smaller towns further down the valley.

"We had just begun to believe that we might be in a stabilizing situation when mother nature has delivered something totally shocking to us in the last 24 hours," Bligh told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio. "This is an intense and grim situation and it is far from over."

Rescue workers were battling more bad weather Tuesday. Heavy rain and thunderstorms were forecast for the region for most of the day, which could lead to more flash flooding, the Bureau of Meteorology warned.

Officials urged residents of towns downstream from Toowoomba to immediately move to higher ground. Residents in low-lying regions of the state capital of Brisbane - Australia's third-largest city - were urged to sandbag their homes.

Deputy Police Commissioner Ian Stewart said rescue efforts were concentrated on towns downstream of Toowoomba, including hardest-hit Murphy's Creek and Grantham, where about 30 people sought shelter in a school isolated by the floodwaters.

News video from late Monday showed houses submerged to the roof line in raging muddy waters, with people clambering on top. A man, woman and child sat on the roof of their car as waters churned around them with just inches to spare.

Among the dead were a mother and her two children, Bligh said.

In Toowoomba, the waters disappeared almost as fast as they arrived, leaving debris strewn throughout downtown and cars piled atop one another.

The flooding in recent weeks has cut roads and rail lines have been cut across Queensland, and the state's coal industry has been virtually shut down, and cattle ranching and farming across a large part of the state are at a standstill.

Queensland officials have said the price of rebuilding homes, businesses and infrastructure, coupled with economic losses, could be as high as $5 billion.

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