Australia‘s “bibilical” flood claimed its first victim when a woman was swept away in her car as authorities warned the waters had yet to peak in the one of the worst affected areas of Queensland.
As further thunderstorms were forecast across the region, bringing the potential for flash flooding, residents of the city of Rockhampton braced themselves for the Fitzroy river to reach its peak in the next 48 hours.
An area the size of France and Germany combined has been hit by the flooding of three river systems. More than 200,000 people in 20 towns and cities have been affected.
The woman who drowned was trying to cross a flooded causeway when her car was swept into a river in Burketown, western Queensland, on Saturday. The body of the 41-year-old was recovered yesterday about a mile away, Queensland police said. Two other people are feared drowned.
“It may not look dangerous or too deep but it only takes 60cm to wash a car off the road,” said Iain MacKenzie, acting commissioner of Queensland’s fire and rescue service. “We cannot spell the dangers more clearly – people are risking their lives by entering floodwaters,” he said.
In Rockhampton many residents have already fled low-lying areas and up to 40% of the city is expected to be affected.
Evacuee Reg Wilson said he didn’t want to leave his home but police told him he had no choice. “A man came along in a car with a gun on his hip and said ‘you need to be out of here by 5 o’clock’. When a man with a gun talks to you like that, you get out,” he said.
Rockhampton, a tourism centre about 350 miles north of Brisbane, is home to 75,000 people. After the peak, the town is expected to remain flooded for up to two weeks.
The river was last night 8.9m above its normal height and is expected to peak on Wednesday at 9.4m, making it the second worst flood on record.
“It’s very tragic and very difficult to comprehend,” said Rockhampton’s mayor, Brad Carter. “People have been very stressed from shifting out of their homes as flood waters rise and knowing that in a couple of weeks’ time, they’ll have to go back and clean them out. It’s devastating.”
More rain is forecast and towns and cities downstream are preparing for the floods to reach them. “In some places, we’re still days or even more than a week away from floodwaters reaching some places,” said Bruce Grady, of Queensland emergency management.
“There’s a concern that these big river systems are very charged and flowing very quickly and we’re unsure as to whether they may totally destroy some homes in their path,” he said.
Rockhampton sits near the mouth of the Fitzroy river system, one of Australia’s largest, carrying the water from last week’s rains down the coast.
An evacuation centre has been set up at the university in Rockhampton with space for up to 1,500 people. So far 50 have registered there.
The Australian Red Cross has warned people this flood is going to be a long haul and asked them to come the centre with up to 10 days’ worth of clothes as well as medicines and prescriptions.
“It’s a difficult time for evacuees, but the mood is generally positive,” said Tim McInerny, Red Cross field operations manager for Rockhampton.
A military airlift will begin today to restock the city’s supermarkets. Hercules planes will fly supplies to the nearby city of Mackay, four hours’ drive north of Rockhampton, from where they will be brought in by road. The runway at Rockhampton’s airport – which usually caters for 70,000 passengers a month – is under water and expected to remain closed for up to three weeks.
Roads to the south and rail access to the city are also cut off. From Tuesday, food will be brought in by barge.
Queensland emergency management’s assistant director general, Bruce Grady, said the flood relief operation was running smoothly.
“We’ve had a fair bit of practice at dealing with this sort of stuff but the scale of this is bigger than anything we’ve faced in recent times,” he said.
The cleanup and damage bill is expected to reach billions of dollars, with many losing their homes and their livelihoods. “In many ways, it is a disaster of biblical proportions,” Queensland’s treasurer, Andrew Fraser, told reporters in the flooded city of Bundaberg on Saturday.
“Experience tells us that a significant number of people will not have had flood insurance or any insurance at all,” said Grady.
Industry is also being heavily affected. “The mining industry is losing something in the order of A$100m (£65m) a day,” said Grady. He said one mine has water 110m deep in it.
Agriculture has also been heavily affected across the state since large areas of farming land are on flood plains.
The cost of fresh produce like bananas, mangoes, tomatoes, pumpkin and sweet potato are likely to increase as much as fourfold by next week. John Cummings, of the National Association of Retail Grocers, said the higher prices could last at least two months.
But not everyone was outwardly worried. Water was lapping at the steps of one Rockhampton pub, but the owner had no plans to close down.
“In the big cities, they pay big bucks for canal frontage,” the Fitzroy hotel owner, Tony Higgins, told the Associated Press.