Australian military flies in flood relief supplies

GLADSTONE, Australia Sun Jan 2, 2011 6:54pm EST

Two men boat along a flooded street in Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia December 29, 2010. REUTERS/Jono Searle/Pool

Two men boat along a flooded street in Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia December 29, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Jono Searle/Pool

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GLADSTONE, Australia (Reuters) - Military aircraft flew supplies to an Australian town slowly disappearing under floodwaters, as authorities warned on Monday that record floods that have devastated the northeast were far from over.

The spreading environmental disaster is estimated to have caused more than A$1 billion ($980 million) in damage, has forced thousands from their homes and has hit the economy hard, particularly coal mining and agriculture.

One person has been confirmed dead in what Queensland state Treasurer Andrew Fraser called a "disaster of biblical proportions". Rivers in the state's south have hit levels higher than any on record, and are predicted to go as high as 13 meters.

The downpours have forced a string of mining companies to declare force majeure on coal contracts due to disruption to production and transport.

In the town of Rockhampton, a community of 77,000 situated 600 km (370 miles) north of the state capital Brisbane, floodwaters reached 9 meters (29.5 ft) early on Monday, said the state's emergency coordinator, police Deputy Commissioner Ian Stewart.

Rockhampton's Fitzroy River is expected to hit a peak of around 9.4 meters by Wednesday, said Stewart.

"Today we'll see resupply of Rockhampton by military aircraft taking supplies into Mackay and then road transporting them down to Rockhampton. That will continue until such time as the road is cut," Stewart told a news conference.

State Premier Anna Bligh is to fly in to visit the town on Monday morning, a spokeswoman said, and discuss disaster relief with local officials.

In the south of the state, floodwaters have reached 12.6 meters at the town of Surat, where the Balonne River was already at record levels, with a peak of over 13 meters predicted on Tuesday, while the nearby Condamine River was also in full flood. Stewart said police reinforcements had been sent to the area, amid fears of looting.

"Extra police are being taken into those communities today as a pre-emptive response to the flooding that is expected over the next week or so," Stewart said

Weather forecasters at Australia's Bureau of Meteorology said some of the river levels recorded in the state's south are the highest in Australia's recorded history.

The floods have forced thousands to leave their homes across the state, with many spending New Year camping out in hastily organized evacuation centers. In Rockhampton, authorities have ordered forced evacuations for any residents unwilling to leave their homes.

Residents in Rockhampton, which lies near the mouth of giant Fitzroy River system, have described people getting in and out of houses by boat and water lapping at the floorboards of homes.

One woman has died in the floods, and a search was still under way on Monday for a man who disappeared while on a fishing trip. Although the rains have eased, the run-off from a Christmas deluge brought by the La Nina weather pattern is still slowing making its way down river systems.

On Monday, Premier Bligh and Prime Minister Julia Gillard jointly ordered further assistance for primary producers hit by the floods.

"We know for example we have many primary producers with stranded stock needing to get fodder to them," Bligh told reporters. "These grants are a way of helping them get back on their feet."

Emergency coordinator Stewart urged people to avoid floodwaters and be careful if driving on damaged roads.

"We can replace houses, we can replace cars but we can't replace Queenslanders," he said.

(Editing by Alex Richardson)

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