Brisbane a 'war zone' as huge flood smashes city

BRISBANE, Australia, Jan 13, 2011 (AFP) - Australia's third-largest city Brisbane was turned into a "war zone" Thursday with whole suburbs under water and infrastructure smashed as the worst flood in decades hit 30,000 properties.

Shocked evacuees surveyed the damage after floods that have swept eastern Australia peaked about a metre (three feet) below feared levels around dawn, sparing thousands more properties in the besieged river city.

Water cascades into a building site as flood waters inundate Brisbane on January 13, 2011. AFP

Queensland's tearful state premier Anna Bligh said relief was tinged with despair at the damage to homes and major landmarks, as well as the scale of the "post-war" rebuilding effort ahead in the city of two million people.

"It's a very mixed story here today, there is some relief and I'm grateful Mother Nature hasn't been as terrible as she could have been, but people are waking up to unbearable agony across our city today," Bligh told Sky News.

"We've seen scenes of unbelievable devastation and destruction: entire suburbs where only rooftops can be glimpsed, whole big workplaces... are completely under water.

"Whole industrial parks (and) railway stations under water, bridges, roads all closed," she added. "What I'm seeing looks more like a war zone in some places."

A 24-year-old man became the city's first victim when he was engulfed while checking on his father's property. Fourteen people have now died in the past three days, mostly in flash floods that wrecked hill towns west of Brisbane.

The swollen Brisbane River, which runs through the centre of the Queensland state capital, was beginning to slowly recede. But the nervous city was reeling from damage wrought by its worst flooding since 1974.

A massive 300-metre (300-yard) stretch of a popular concrete walkway that was perched above the river was ripped from its moorings and sped down the river, before being halted by the bravery of a quick-thinking tugboat pilot.

A well-known floating restaurant was among dozens of vessels and pontoons also sent speeding down the waterway, while the downtown Suncorp Stadium resembled a giant swimming pool and the XXXX brewery was also flooded.

Central Brisbane remained a ghost town after office buildings ordered workers to stay away and power was cut to more than 100,000 properties in the region, as a safety measure to avoid electrical fires.

Choking back tears, Bligh said Queenslanders were a tough breed who had overcome adversity before.

"We're the ones that they knock down and we get up again. I said earlier this week that this weather may break our hearts... but it will not break our will," she said.

The Brisbane River peaked at 4.46 metres (14 feet, eight inches) at around 5:15 am (1915 GMT Wednesday), below levels that devastated the city in 1974.

Residents breathed a sigh of relief as they woke up to the news that they had dodged the worst-case scenario. However, about 12,000 homes were completely flooded, some up to their roofs, and 13,700 were partly inundated.

Another 5,000 businesses were fully or partly hit, according to official estimates.

"It was worse in '74, a lot worse," said John McLeod, security director of the Stamford Plaza hotel, which lies near the Brisbane River in the city centre and which was forced to close due to flooding.

Meanwhile rescuers made a gruesome and painstaking search of communities shattered by Monday's flash floods, with dozens still unaccounted for.

A total of 24 people have died in floodwaters that have turned an area of northeast Australia twice the size of Texas into a disaster zone, following months of heavy rains blamed on the La Nina weather phenomenon.

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