Floodwaters hold steady, damage estimated in billions
Floodwaters are holding their level in northeastern Australia, having inundated thousands of homes and shutting down mines and businesses. Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said Wednesday it was an unprecedented disaster that would cost billions.
AP - Floodwaters in an inundated city on Australia’s northeastern coast held steady below their predicted peak on Wednesday as exhausted residents were warned they would face a long wait before the churning, muddy mess dries up.
Residents of the waterlogged city of Rockhampton were hopeful the river had swelled to its highest level, with the mayor saying the community appeared to have been spared any further damage. Water from the overflowing Fitzroy River has already swamped 200 homes and 100 businesses, while flooding elsewhere in northeastern Australia has forced thousands to evacuate.
“It looks like it may have stabilized,” Mayor Brad Carter said.
More than a week of pounding rains that started just before Christmas left much of northeastern Australia under a sea of water that is making its way through river systems toward the ocean.
Around 1,200 homes in Queensland have been inundated, with another 10,700 suffering some damage, Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said Wednesday. Four thousand residents evacuated from their homes in the flood zone, which spans an area greater than France and Germany combined.
The deluge has ruined crops, closed most of the state’s lucrative coal mines and caused “catastrophic” damage to Queensland’s transport systems, Bligh told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.
“This is a disaster of an unprecedented scale and it will require an unparalleled rebuilding effort,” Bligh told reporters in Brisbane, where officials held an emergency meeting on Wednesday to sort out recovery plans for the 200,000 people affected by the deluge.
Until the waters dry up, it won’t be clear what the cost of the flooding will be, Bligh said. But the price tag is expected to reach into the billions, she said.
“If you count everything from the cost to homes, the home rebuilding effort, public infrastructure rebuilding effort and economic loss, I think we’re well above $5 billion territory,” Bligh said.
Floodwaters have made it impossible for 40 of the state’s coal mines to operate, ministers said at the emergency Cabinet meeting.
“It’s going to take some months for some mines to be back to full operation,” Resources Minister Stephen Robertson said. “We earn ‘round about AU$100 million ($100 million) a day exporting coal to the rest of the world and exports have been significantly restricted by the impact on infrastructure.”
In Rockhampton, a city of 75,000, about 500 residents were evacuated as the Fitzroy River rose and overflowed this week. There were fears it would climb higher Wednesday, but even if the waters levels hold, residents face a long wait before things return to normal, officials warned.
“These water levels will be consistently high for a long period of time and these levels could stay for 24 hours before they start to drop,” Queensland police Acting Assistant Commissioner Alistair Dawson said.
In other parts of the state, some flooded communities were beginning to dry out. In the town of Theodore, which evacuated all 300 residents last week, specialists arrived in helicopters on Wednesday to check the safety of power, water and sewage plants, county Mayor John Hooper said.
Officials were still trying to determine when it would be safe to allow residents to return. One problem: an influx of venomous snakes, flushed from their habitats and searching for dry ground amid the waters.
Rockhampton residents have also reported seeing higher than usual numbers of snakes, Mayor Brad Carter said. Saltwater crocodiles were another worry for people entering floodwaters, as the predators have been spotted from time to time in the Fitzroy River, Carter said.
“There’s a lot of snakes _ and I mean a lot,” Rockhampton resident Shane Muirhead told Australian Broadcasting Corp. “Like, every hundred yards (91 meters) you will see a snake, and they’re just everywhere.”
In the southern Queensland town of St George, nursing home residents evacuated and residents toiled in the rain to build levee banks ahead of floodwaters expected to peak next week. The town was devastated in March by another flood, and residents were worried the latest onslaught of water would cause even more damage.
“People see the floodwaters coming down and say, ‘That’s my life about to be covered in silt again,”” Senator Barnaby Joyce, a St George resident, told Australia’s Sky News. “People are thinking ... we’ve got no money, no crop, we’ve really got no future.”
Floodwaters began building before Christmas, following an unusually wet summer in the tropical region. Rains have eased, and water levels have been dropping in some Queensland communities, but it may be a month before the floodwaters dry up completely. Swollen rivers and flooding have killed 10 people in Queensland since late November, police say.
Despite the devastation, Carter said the residents of Rockhampton were keeping their spirits up.
“We have a very resilient community,” Carter said. “They’re holding up very well. Many of the people that live in these low-lying areas have been through these flooding events before.”