Horsham: Anxious residents of towns in southern Australia braced for once-in-200-year floods on Monday, as the government said the rolling flood crisis was its costliest natural disaster ever.
Homeowners in the southern state of Victoria raced to defend their properties from swollen river systems, as police in the hardest-hit state of Queensland found the body of another flood victim in the town of Grantham.
The hub of Horsham, which lies about 300 kilometres (187 miles) northwest of the Victorian state capital Melbourne, is expected to be one of the worst-hit towns in the region, where more than 40 villages have already been affected.
"It`s predicted to be a one-in-200-year event," a Victoria emergency services spokeswoman said as rivers burst their banks following heavy rains fuelled by a strong La Nina weather pattern.
"We are expecting the town will be cut in half by the river and that the highway be cut as well."
The Wimmera River, which bisects Horsham -- a town of 14,200 people -- and is also threatening another 12 small towns, is expected to peak on Tuesday but the community was calm on Monday as many sandbagged some of the 400 homes at risk.
More than 1,600 properties have been affected by flooding after Victoria was inundated by water at the weekend, as the country continues to be swamped by summer floods that have killed at least 31 people in Queensland.
At least 20 people have died since a flash flood described as an "inland tsunami" last week devastated a valley west of the Queensland capital Brisbane, uprooting entire houses and hurling cars through the heaving waters.
Brisbane itself was devastated by flooding when its main river burst its banks on Thursday, while floodwaters affecting an area the size of France and Germany combined covered the eastern state.
Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said Brisbane, home to two million, was now back in business as a civilian army of volunteers helped locals rip up carpets, remove sodden ceilings and walls and toss out reeking and soaked furniture.
But she added: "The last three weeks have been truly shocking for all Queenslanders and now is the time to forensically examine the devastating chain of events and the aftermath," as she announced an inquiry into the disaster.
Treasurer Wayne Swan said the Queensland deluge, which destroyed thousands of homes and businesses, disrupted valuable coal exports, wiped out crops and washed away infrastructure, would likely have a massive economic cost.
"It looks like this is possibly going to be, in economic terms, the largest natural disaster in our history," Swan told state broadcaster ABC, adding that it was too early to put an accurate figure on the impact.
"It will involve billions of dollars of Commonwealth money, and also state government money, and there`s going to be impacts on local government as well."
Swan also said the floods in major coal producer Queensland, which analysts said could more than double the price of steelmaking coal to a record USD 500 per tonne, could also impact of the cost of living for Australians.
But as rescuers continued the grim task of picking through the flash flood-hit ruins of towns in the Lockyer Valley west of Brisbane for more bodies, Bligh warned that the reality of the floods had yet to hit many people.
"I do think we all have to prepare ourselves ... for the real possibility and likelihood that after all that effort, we may well all start to ... feel a bit of a downer as we look around and the reality of it hits us," she said.