Australia braces as devastating floods set to worsen

SYDNEY, Jan 3, 2011 (AFP) - The Australian military and emergency services were Monday battling huge flooding in the country's northeast that has left at least one person dead, amid warnings the worst of the devastation is to come.

Up to 200,000 people are estimated to have been hit by the fast-flowing waters which have left 22 rural towns under water or substantially inundated by flooding covering an area the size of France and Germany combined.

The bureau of meteorology in Queensland early Monday cancelled a severe thunderstorm warning, saying the immediate threat had passed, but officials said they expected evacuation centres to swell as waters rose.

The Australian Red Cross said the situation was rapidly changing, with entire towns still evacuated in some places while residents of others were returning to clean-up and assess the damage.

A "massive wall of water" was heading towards other towns and residents of Rockhampton were still waiting for the Fitzroy River to peak, Queensland executive director Greg Goebel told AFP.

"There are people who simply cannot get back at this stage," Goebel said.

"But we've got other towns that the water has passed through and they are starting to make their way back. But then we've got the waters rising in Rockhampton."

Queensland state assistant police commissioner Alistair Dawson has warned the emergency could drag on for another month and cautioned that major difficulties still lay ahead.

"It's hard to make the call that the worst is behind us," he said Sunday.

"Parts of the state are still in response mode while others are in recovery.... I think we're in the middle of the event," he said.

The floods, which are wreaking untold billions of dollars in damage to crops and Australia's key mining industry, claimed their first victim Sunday when the body of a missing woman was recovered.

The 41-year-old woman was swept from her car as she tried to cross a swamped causeway in the Gulf of Carpentaria region.

Police managed to save three children and another adult from the car but the woman disappeared before they could reach her.

"These waters are exceptionally fast, they're not to be trifled with and they're not to be taken lightly," Dawson said.

Police said there were no further reports of missing persons related to the floods but that other search and rescue missions were under way.

The floods have hit the mining sector particularly hard, while farmers, small businesses and tourism are also expected to suffer.

The focus was on Rockhampton on Monday, with the city's airport, a major regional hub, closed to commercial traffic because the runways were under water.

The deluge also cut main roads and railways into the town and disrupted power supplies.

The town's river is expected to peak at 9.4 metres (31 feet) Wednesday, threatening 2,000-4,000 homes, and Mayor Brad Carter said desperate sandbagging was under way.

Rockhampton could be isolated for up to 10 days, and though food shortages were not yet an issue, Carter said he was unsure how long supplies could last as the situation worsens.

In Bundaberg, in Queensland's southeast, the clean-up had begun in about 300 homes and 120 businesses as flood waters recede, but other towns such as Theodore and Condamine remained empty of residents.

"It's just devastating," Queenslander Beryl Callaghan told Sky News after returning to her water-damaged home.

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