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'Heartache and grief': Australia sees flood damage

'Heartache and grief': Australia sees flood damage
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Thursday, January 13, 2011 - 11:33pm

BRISBANE, Australia – Parts of Australia's third-largest city reopened Friday as deadly floodwaters that had swamped entire neighborhoods receded, revealing streets and thousands of homes covered in a thick layer of putrid sludge.

Garbage trucks moved through Brisbane's muddy streets and some residents dragged ruined furniture out of their homes as the massive cleanup began following one of Australia's worst natural disasters.

In towns upstream of Brisbane, soldiers picked their way through debris looking for more victims. Weeks of flooding across Australia's northeast have caused 25 deaths, and 55 people were still missing.

"There is a lot of heartache and grief as people start to see for the first time what has happened to their homes and their streets," Queensland state Premier Anna Bligh said. "In some cases, we have street after street after street where every home has been inundated to the roof level."

The muddy waters from the Brisbane River swamped 30,000 homes and businesses in Brisbane. One man drowned Thursday when he was sucked into a storm drain as he tried to check on his father's home in an inundated neighborhood of the city. Officials expected to find more bodies farther upstream as they finally got access to hamlets struck by flash flooding on Monday.

Most of the people still unaccounted for are from around Toowoomba, a city west of Brisbane in the Lockyer Valley where a sudden downpour caused a flash flood likened to an inland tsunami. Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson said Friday that officials may never be able to find everyone swept away by the raging torrent.

"We would certainly hope they would find them all," Atkinson said. "Regrettably, we could not exclude completely the possibility that some may never be found."

Dramatic video captured the power of the roaring water: A yacht ripped from its moorings rocketed down the river and suddenly sank after hitting a submerged object. Two men on board were thrown into the water and rescued by people on a small aluminum boat nearby.

Bligh warned the cleanup task would be of "postwar proportions." Water was still high in some areas Friday, but had pulled back dramatically in others to reveal mountains of muddy wreckage. Officials asked the Australian Defence Force for a minesweeper to search the mouth of the river for sunken debris.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard doubled the number of defense personnel involved in the recovery effort to 1,200, the largest deployment for a natural disaster since Cyclone Tracy destroyed the northern city of Darwin in 1974.

"There's a lot of dirt, a lot of filth, a lot of mess that needs to be cleaned up," Gillard said. "We've been through some very difficult days and there's still a lot to go through in the weeks and months that lie ahead."

About 57,000 homes were still without power across Queensland, and the military was delivering food, clothes and other supplies to areas still cut off by the waters.

Health officials warned people to throw out anything that had touched the contaminated waters. Throughout Brisbane, a sickening odor of spoiled food and the river's muck wafted through the air.

"What the city has to prepare itself for ... is the unbearable stench," Bligh said. "The smell of it is just unspeakable."

Brisbane resident Kirsten Norquay was trying to figure out how to break the news to her hospitalized sister that everything she owns is now destroyed.

Norquay's sister, who is mentally ill, lives on the ground floor of their house and had no idea muddy floodwaters had ruined all of her belongings. She was due to be released from the hospital Friday, and Norquay feared she would have a breakdown when confronted by the devastating sight of the wreckage.

"We have like a massive pile of all her life's belongings on the front grass," she said. "The only thing I saved was her photos."

Police officers were patrolling the flooded streets of Brisbane and other waterlogged communities around the clock. Ten people have been charged with looting in the past week, police said.

The flooding across Queensland has submerged dozens of towns — some three times — after several weeks of driving rain fell in the tropical northeast. Highways and rail lines have been washed away, and the disaster is shaping up to be Australia's costliest. Damage estimates were already at $5 billion before the floodwaters swamped Brisbane.

Heavy rains in the southern state of Victoria were also causing flooding there. Around 2,000 people from 400 homes across Victoria have been evacuated, State Emergency Service spokeswoman Jilly Charlwood said. In the state capital of Melbourne, Australia's second largest city, the Yarra River washed over its banks and onto an adjacent pedestrian walkway, she said.

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