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* Floods force thousands to evacuate in two states
* Death toll stands at four
* Coal, rail, flights affected
By James Grubel
CANBERRA, Jan 29 Massive summer floods have
killed four people and forced thousands of people to evacuate
their homes across two Australian states on Tuesday, disrupting
air and rail travel and coal production.
A deluge fed by the ex-tropical cyclone Oswald dumped more
than 200 millimetres (8 inches) of rain in some areas of the
Queensland and New South Wales states over the past three days,
swelling rivers and swamping towns.
The worst-hit areas were around Bundaberg, Rockhampton and
Ipswich in the Queensland state, and around the northern New
South Wales towns of Grafton and Lismore.
A fleet of 14 helicopters rescued more than 1,000 people
across Queensland overnight and rescue efforts continued on
"Across Queensland the wild weather has broken a lot of
hearts," Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said.
Among the four people killed was a three-year old boy, who
died in hospital after being hit by a falling tree as he and his
mother watched floodwaters in parts of Brisbane, Australia's
third largest city.
In Bundaberg, one of the worst hit towns, more than 2,000
homes were swamped and 7,500 people evacuated. People clung to
rooftops calling on passing boats to rescue them and television
footage showed people being winched from floodwaters.
Brisbane residents have been warned to boil all drinking
water as the city's main water treatment plant had been shut,
unable to cope with the torrent of muddy water flowing down
stream and swelling the Brisbane River.
But the floodwaters have peaked much lower than similar
floods in 2011, which inundated Brisbane, and cost more than
A$6.6 billion ($6.87 billion) to repair. The 2011 floods cut
Australia's gross domestic product by 0.5 of a percentage point,
cutting coal production in Queensland by A$6 billion and cutting
agricultural production by round A$1.9 billion.
"It is far too early to be talking about the full financial
impact," Treasurer Wayne Swan told reporters in Queensland.
COAL, RAIL AFFECTED
The heavy rains inundated areas of Australia's eastern
coalfields, dumping up to 400 millimetres of rain on
Queensland's Bowen Basin, home to giant open pit mines owned by
BHP Billiton , Mitsubishi Corp, Anglo
American, Peabody Energy and others.
A levee bank surrounding the Middlemount open cut mine in
the Bowen Basin was breached and water flowed into the mine,
according to part owner Yancoal, with production likely
to be affected for three weeks.
Transport group Aurizon Holdings Ltd was forced to
shut parts of its rail operations that haul coal to the port of
Gladstone, a key export terminal on the eastern seaboard.
Aurizon said its Moura and Blackwater networks, which links
coal mines in the Bowen basin to two export terminals at
Gladstone, remain closed due to the rain and floods.
"Aurizon cannot fully assess some locations because the rail
line is still under water. However the current expectation is
that the Moura and Blackwater systems will be re-opened within
seven to 10 days," the company said in a statement.
The floods were not expected to have a major impact on
Australia's sugar crop, which has avoided major damage.
Insurer Suncorp said it had already received 4,500
claims related to Queensland's flooding and storm-related damage
in Queensland, adding it was prepared for the financial impact.
The number of claims drove Suncorp's stock down 2.0 percent,
although the company said it had made provisions for natural
hazard claims of A$520 million for the 2013 fiscal year.
The Insurance Council of Australia said insurers had
received 6,100 claims by early Tuesday, estimated to be worth
A$72 million, although more claims were expected.
Airline Virgin Australia cancelled 20 flights along
the east coast, while Qantas Airways said its schedule
was returning to normal on Tuesday after all flights to
Queensland's Gold Coast were cancelled on Monday.
($1 = 0.9608 Australian dollars)
(Additional reporting by Jim Regan and Colin Packham in Sydney;
Editing by Michael Perry)