Australian towns face isolation as flood crisis worsens

Last Updated: Tuesday, January 4, 2011 - 10:53

Rockhampton: Tens of thousands of residents of a major Australian town faced complete isolation Tuesday from a worsening flood crisis swamping vast swathes of the country, as Washington offered aid.

Officials in Rockhampton carried out forced evacuations and issued warnings about marauding snakes and crocodiles as one of Australia`s worst floods, which has already hit dozens of towns, looked set to sever its last road link.

Residents sandbagged homes and shops in the regional centre, where 200 houses are already flooded and the Fitzroy River bisecting the town has swollen to 9.2 metres (30 feet), expected to peak at 9.4 metres on Wednesday or Thursday.

"I know people around here are pretty tough, but if your house gets smashed up pretty bad and you have lost all of your kids` presents (it`s difficult)," State Emergency Service (SES) operations director Scott Mahaffey told AFP.

Rockhampton, 500 kilometres (300 miles) from Brisbane and a hub for the farming and coal-mining region, is now the focus for what officials call "biblical" floods affecting 200,000 people in an area the size of France and Germany.

Weeks of heavy rains followed by tropical cyclone Tasha have swollen rivers to record levels in some cases, deluging mines and farms, washing away bridges and forcing military evacuations of entire towns by helicopter.

Rising brown waters have closed the airport and railway in Rockhampton, population 75,000. But officials said the final road link from the town`s north remained open Tuesday, reversing earlier statements it was cut.

The military trucked in supplies and police frog-marched one reluctant resident from his home, considered too dangerous to remain in as the waters rise.

Two pregnant women who went into labour late Monday and early Tuesday were among about 200 evacuees, including scores taking refuge in makeshift shelters. Some homes leaked sewage into the streets and power was cut to at-risk suburbs.

Emergency officials voiced fears the waters could remain at high levels for two weeks, bringing sandflies and disease-carrying mosquitoes, and warned of the threat of poisonous snakes and crocodiles.

"They`re in their mating season and they`ve been flushed out of their environment... snakes are very, very cranky right now," Mahaffey told AFP.

"(And) the problem with crocodiles now is it`s very, very hard to pick (them) with the amount of debris," he added. One SES volunteer told AFP he had seen "two cops hightailing it out of the water with a croc going past".

Ten people have died trying to negotiate fast-running waters in vehicles, swimming or on foot over the past month, while the disaster is expected to cost several billions of dollars (several billion US).
Flooded mines and railways and closed ports have hammered Queensland`s all-important production of hard coking coal, much of it bound for urbanising Asia`s steel mills.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed condolences Monday for the loss of life in floods and said Washington was prepared to provide assistance to its close ally.

"On behalf of President (Barack) Obama and the people of the United States, I offer my condolences for the loss of life and damage in Queensland caused by the recent flooding," Clinton said in a statement.
"Our embassy in Canberra is monitoring the situation and has been in contact with Australian authorities. Australia is an important partner and close friend of the United States and we stand ready to provide assistance," she said.

Other parts of the state are already cleaning up after the worst of the flooding passed, but officials warn relief and recovery operations could last for weeks.

PTI



First Published: Tuesday, January 4, 2011 - 10:53

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