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Swollen Rivers Force Evacuations as Australia Floods Spread, Waters Rise

Swollen rivers are forcing more evacuations in the Australian state of Queensland, where floods have caused more than A$5 billion ($5 billion) in damage across an area the size of France and Germany.

About 1,200 houses have been inundated and 4,000 residents moved in the state’s worst flooding in 50 years, according to the Queensland government. Water levels are rising in St George, a town of 3,500 people about 500 kilometers (310 miles) inland from the state capital, Brisbane, and may peak early next week, the Bureau of Meteorology said on its website.

“I don’t want a second wasted in the huge recovery and rebuilding task before us,” state Premier Anna Bligh said yesterday after holding an emergency Cabinet meeting. She appointed a senior army officer to lead the effort and told reporters the disaster was “on an unprecedented scale.”

The Queensland government says floods are affecting about a million square kilometers of the state, which is Australia’s largest coal exporter and accounts for about 20 percent of the nation’s A$1.28 trillion economy. Record rainfall has closed mines and spoiled crops and may have a “significant impact” on the nation’s economy as exports are interrupted, according to Donald McGauchie, a Reserve Bank of Australia board member.

Bligh, who told reporters the cost of rebuilding damaged infrastructure may run into billions of dollars, named Major General Mick Slater, a Commander of the First Division, to head a new flood recovery taskforce.

Rebuilding Effort

“If you count everything from the cost to homes, the home rebuilding effort, the public infrastructure rebuilding effort and the economic loss, I think we’re well into sort of above A$5 billion territory,” she said yesterday.

Slater, who joined the army in 1978 and has commanded operations in East Timor, will focus on the reconstruction of houses, roads and other transport infrastructure, as well as community support and health matters, Bligh told reporters. Federal Senator Joe Ludwig has been appointed to a new state cabinet committee that will meet weekly on the recovery effort.

Ten people have died in flood waters in the past few weeks and an estimated 200,000 people in the state have been affected, according to Queensland Police.

Emergency crews are building levees in St George as the Balonne River rises, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported. Authorities evacuated 28 people from a nursing home in the town because of the flood threat, according to the report.

Weekend River Peak

The river is expected to rise to 13 meters at St George today and may peak below 14 meters during the weekend, the weather bureau said today on its website. Rain is forecast for southeast Queensland, with moderate to heavy falls, it said today.

Rockhampton, a coastal town of 75,000 residents about 500 kilometers north of Brisbane, shut its airport to commercial jets after water covered the runway. Train links have been cut off and roads to the south and west of the city have been closed. The airport may remain shut to commercial flights for three weeks, Bligh told reporters.

“The mood in the town is resilient, the Queensland spirit is coming through,” Leigh Devlin, general manager of the Heritage Hotel in Rockhampton, said by phone yesterday. While the hotel shut for three days as a precaution, it shouldn’t be deluged when the Fitzroy River peaks and will reopen. “So whilst we’ll still be limping, we’ll be open,” he said.

Record Rainfall

Flood waters in Rockhampton have peaked at 9.2 meters (30 feet), below the 9.4 meters expected, the ABC quoted Paul Birch, a weather bureau hydrologist, as saying. Water levels may start to decline today, he said.

In Western Australia, the Gascoyne River is flooding. It was at 6.5 meters which may be the peak, the weather bureau said on its website.

Australia had its third-wettest year on record during 2010, according to the Bureau of Meteorology, which says showers and storms will continue across Queensland into next week.

The rain has destroyed cotton crops, halted coal deliveries, shut mines and prompted producers including BHP Billiton Ltd. and Rio Tinto Group to declare force majeure, a legal clause allowing them to miss contracted deliveries.

The floods have cut production of coal by about 4.5 million metric tons since the start of December, Colin Hamilton, an analyst at Macquarie Group Ltd., said in an e-mail. Coking coal prices may increase by about a third, analysts from Macquarie, Morgan Stanley and Daiwa Capital Markets said.

“There’s very substantial damage to infrastructure,” McGauchie, who is also chairman of Nufarm Ltd., Australia’s largest supplier of farm chemicals, said by phone. “The consequences to export income could be quite substantial.”

The floods may delay wheat deliveries carried by rail by as much as two weeks, according to GrainCorp Ltd. About half of the nation’s crop may get a lower quality grade after excessive rains swamped eastern fields, National Australia Bank Ltd. has estimated.

To contact the reporter on this story: Elisabeth Behrmann at ebehrmann1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Edward Johnson at ejohnson28@bloomberg.net.

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