Brisbane besieged by once-in-a-century floods

BRISBANE, Australia, Jan 12, 2011 (AFP) - Australia's third-biggest city Brisbane was besieged Wednesday by once-in-a-century floods that could hit more than 30,000 homes, as the death toll in raging torrents rose to 12.

Thousands of people fled to higher ground and Brisbane's centre was a "ghost town" as the river city of two million battened down for its worst deluge since 1893, as deadly floods inundate vast areas of Australia's northeast.

This handout taken on January 12, 2011 and issued by the Queensland Government of an aerial image taken by Queensland Premier Anna Bligh herself during surveillance of the damage shows the flooded Rocklea markets in Brisbane. AFP

Power was cut to tens of thousands of premises and some residents headed to evacuation centres as boats and floating restaurants broke their moorings and careered down the swollen Brisbane River, smashing into bridges.

"We are bracing for a one-in-a-hundred-year flood," said state premier Anna Bligh. "We are bracing for a massive amount of water coming into this river system and it will flood thousands of properties."

More than 50 suburbs and 2,100 roads are expected to be left under water as the Brisbane River bursts its banks and swamps the city centre, along with other areas, with the peak of 5.5 meters due around dawn on Thursday.

Damage is already intense, with witnesses spotting entire houses in the river. The military pondered scuttling a landmark ferry and a well-known restaurant that were in danger of floating away.

City authorities said about 20,000 homes will be completely flooded with another 12,000 partially affected.

"We expect the CBD of our capital city to be looking and feeling a lot like a ghost town around about now," said Bligh.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard called the disaster's scale "mind-boggling", but urged people to help their neighbours during the city's worst emergency since its last major floods in 1974.

"If there's someone in your street you're worried about, maybe an older Australian that you haven't seen for a while, maybe give them a knock on the door and make sure they're okay," Gillard said.

Brisbane, the cosmopolitan state capital and economic hub, is the latest and biggest victim of floods caused by months of rains that have turned three-quarters of Queensland into a disaster zone twice the size of Texas.

Panic-buying stripped supermarket shelves of essential supplies and the downtown, 52,500-capacity Suncorp Stadium resembled a giant swimming pool, while the iconic XXXX brewery closed its doors.

Garbage collections and bus services were cancelled, traffic lights were out of action and Brisbane's port was open only for emergency supplies. Sewage from flooded homes spilled into the gathering torrents.

Isolated ATM cash machines were running out of money and residents were told to conserve drinking water in case supplies are cut. Bligh urged people to find refuge and stay there until the danger passed.

"This is a deeply serious natural disaster. Stay in your homes, don't travel unless it's absolutely necessary," she said.

Elsewhere 1,100 people jammed evacuation centres in nearby Ipswich, upstream of Brisbane, where 3,000 homes were deluged. Rural Condamine was evacuated for the second time, along with two towns in neighbouring state New South Wales.

Some of the inundation was related to flash floods that smashed through towns high in the Great Dividing Range to the city's west on Monday, leaving at least 12 dead as rescuers combing wrecked communities found two more bodies.

Bligh said the toll was expected to keep rising with "very, very grave fears" for 15 people among 51 listed as missing. The state coroner headed to the stricken Lockyer Valley region, along with grief counsellors.

"This is about bodies caught up in trees, bodies in creeks that we are searching," said disaster coordinator Ian Stewart.

However, two people who were swept away, presumed dead, later turned up alive, in what police commissioner Bob Atkinson called "a small piece of wonderful news".

"I can only describe it as a miracle," he said. Newspapers also hailed the remarkable birth of a baby boy in a flood-bound home as the waters surged.

Twenty-three people have died in floodwaters in recent weeks, many trying to negotiate fast-running currents. In one tragic incident, a 17-year-old girl drowned when her foot got stuck between rocks as waters rose.

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