Australia braced for a rapidly rising death toll Tuesday after flash floods killed eight and left 72 missing, as a quickly spreading flood disaster forced evacuations in central Brisbane.
A sombre Prime Minister Julia Gillard, dressed in black, warned the country to prepare for the worst after flash floods described as an "inland tsunami" smashed mountainside Toowoomba, sweeping away entire houses.
"Yesterday we saw some simply shocking events in Toowoomba and other communities in the Lockyer Valley, literally walls of water smashing into cars and into buildings," Gillard said.
"We have seen very dramatic images of cars tossed around, people on roofs of houses and on the roofs of cars and people literally hanging on for dear life to trees and to signposts."
|Screengrab taken on January 10, 2010 from footage aired by Australia's Channel 9 shows flood waters racing through the city of Toowoomba.|
Queensland state premier Anna Bligh said the death toll would rise "potentially quite dramatically", with families among those missing and rescue efforts hampered by heavy rain and washed-away roads.
"Mother Nature has delivered something terrible in the last 48 hours but there's more to go and our emergency people are more than up to that task," said Bligh.
"This is going to be I think a very grim day, particularly for the people in that region, and a desperate hour here in Queensland."
TV images showed Toowoomba's streets turned into churning rapids dotted with floating cars, some with people sitting on top, while elsewhere residents were forced onto roofs as waters lapped at awnings.
Four of the dead were children, some of them swept away in cars driven by their mothers. A man and a younger male died in Murphy's Creek near Toowoomba, 125 kilometres (80 miles) west of Brisbane in the Great Dividing Range.
Nineteen people have now died in flooding across Australia's northeastern coal-mining and farming zone after weeks of rain blamed on the La Nina weather system, which has also dumped heavy snow on the northern United States.
Meanwhile floods that have devastated an area the size of France and Germany combined threatened central Brisbane, the state capital, forcing evacuations in a riverside inner city area and warnings for a swathe of suburbs.
"All members of the community who live or are currently near the Brisbane River at West End are advised to move to higher ground," Queensland police said in a statement.
Hundreds of people were air-lifted out of outlying towns as floods that have cost billions of dollars in damage spread yet further.
Disaster coordinator Ian Stewart said he had serious concerns for the small Queensland town of Grantham, where three of the flash-flooding victims died and where dozens of residents are thought to be stranded.
"Grantham is going to be, in my view, just a disaster in terms of the number of homes that have been damaged or destroyed and we're waiting on confirmation of potential extra loss of life," Stewart said.
Federal MP Ian MacFarlane described dramatic scenes in Toowoomba as the flash flood deluged the town before subsiding within three hours, leaving scenes of destruction and people dead in their cars.
"We're just seeing building after building, the water rushing in and blowing the windows out," MacFarlane told Sky News. "Cars that were parked in the car parks were just lifted up and went bobbing down the street."
Toowoomba mayor Peter Taylor said the town was struck without warning after two normally innocuous waterways suddenly overflowed.
"Torrential rain over a very short period of time came down two major creeks through the middle of the city which are normal quiet drainage ways, and people had no warning at all," Taylor told the Seven Network.
"It was just unprecedented. Some people are saying an inland tsunami, and I think that probably sums it up really."
Four military helicopters were sent to join the emergency effort but rescuers were badly hampered by continuing heavy rains in the Lockyer Valley region.