Brisbane Faces Worst Flood Since 1893 Amid Evacuation

Brisbane Braces for Worst Floods in Decades
Debris and overturned cars are seen in central Toowoomba, 127 kilometers west of Brisbane. Photographer: Dan Proud Photography/Getty Images

Brisbane faces its worst floods since 1893 as rivers swollen with heavy rain race toward Australia’s third-largest city, triggering evacuations.

Flash floods on Jan. 10 left 10 dead and more than 90 missing in the northeastern state of Queensland, Premier Anna Bligh said in an interview on Channel Nine today. The death toll may more than double and Brisbane residents should be prepared for enormous disruptions, she said.

Queensland has been lashed for more than two weeks as downpours hammered the coal- and sugar-producing state. Brisbane’s airport bustled with people fleeing the coastal city, home to more than 1 million people. Some of those staying to ride out the waters, which have started flooding suburbs in low-lying areas such as Yeronga, cleared store shelves to hoard food.

“We are facing one of our toughest tests,” Bligh said in a media briefing late yesterday. “We are now in a very frightening experience. We continue to hold very grave fears for the missing.”

As Brisbane residents woke to their first sunny day of the year, the weather bureau forecast light showers for the rest of the week. Bligh said that will help relief and rescue efforts.

The Australian dollar touched a one-month low of 98.21 U.S. cents as concern mounted that economic growth will slow. Australian thermal coal prices rose as the waters curbed output.

Forced Evacuations

Floodwaters have started to inundate parts of the Queensland capital and are forecast on Jan. 13 to surpass the level of a deluge that hit the city in 1974, Brisbane’s worst floods of the 20th century, Bligh said. About 9,000 properties will be flooded and some residents may be forced to evacuate, she said.

Brisbane water levels are due to reach 4.5 meters (15 feet) at 3 p.m. local time, from a current level of 3.1 meters and exceed 5.45 meters tomorrow.

Emerging from an operations room where she’s bunkered down with police and emergency-services officers, Bligh asked residents to stay calm, close ranks and follow orders.

“We do need to brace ourselves for a significant death toll,” Bligh said. ’’If you’re asked to leave your property, don’t make the job harder.’’

1,000 in Shelters

As floodwaters sweep east, an evacuation center has been set up at the RNA Showgrounds at Bowen Hills in Brisbane, Queensland police said. More than a 1,000 people are now in official government centers, Bligh said today. Main roads were clogged late yesterday. Close to the city center, shops and homeowners began surrounding their properties with sandbags.

Bligh warned that shops and businesses are likely to be closed in the next few days as waters rise. Motorists should avoid driving wherever possible, she said.

Many shops in Brisbane are empty, resident Steven Pearce, a book seller, said.

“It’s mayhem,” he said by phone from a supermarket in the south of the city. “On the shelves there is no bread, there is no water, no fruit or vegetables.”

The record 1893 floods dumped the gunship Paluma on the Brisbane Botanical Gardens. The 1974 torrent, triggered by near-record rainfall and a tropical cyclone, killed 16 people and inundated a third of the city’s metropolitan area, according to the website of the Attorney General’s department. Following that deluge, the state built the Wivenhoe Dam to protect the capital.

Dam Near Capacity

That dam is close to capacity and some of its water must be released, said Brisbane’s Lord Mayor, Campbell Newman.

“The big shock absorber that is that dam is now full,” he told reporters. “Every bit of rain that falls in the catchment is going to come down into the city.”

A further 30,000 properties in Brisbane will be partially affected by the flood, Bligh said. Queensland’s government yesterday declared three quarters of the state a disaster zone.

“Thursday is going to be devastating for the residents and businesses concerned,” Newman said. “Those people should take immediate action.”

The latest floods first swept Jan. 10 through Toowoomba, home to 90,000 people about 127 kilometers (79 miles) west of Brisbane. As a wall of brown water cascaded through the town without warning, people were trapped in vehicles while others hung to lamp posts and trees.

The flash floods, described by police as an “inland instant tsunami,” were triggered after heavy rains fell on already sodden ground. The downpours have hit the state’s farming and coal industries and may have affected as many as 200,000 people, authorities say.

Military Assistance

Prime Minister Julia Gillard yesterday offered defense force resources to Bligh for the rescue operation. The U.S., China, Japan, Singapore and New Zealand are among nations that have offered help, she said.

Rescue efforts have been hampered as fog grounded helicopters, leaving residents stranded on rooftops overnight. West of Brisbane closer to this week’s flash floods, about 300 people were airlifted to safety, police said.

The most recent floods have affected about 1 million square kilometers, an area the size of France and Germany. Repairing the damage may cost more than A$5 billion ($4.94 billion), the state government has said.

In Sydney, shares of Suncorp Group Ltd. and Insurance Australia Group Ltd. fell yesterday as investors bet floods in Brisbane will trigger an increase in claims.

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