Military flights rushed Monday to restock the Australian city of Rockhampton before it is cut off by flood waters that have turned a huge swath of the Outback into a lake, while police confirmed two more deaths in the crisis.
The death toll from some of Australia's worst flooding in a decade is three since Saturday, though police in Queensland state say several other people have drowned in separate incidents involving swollen rivers and water accidents since tropical deluges began in late November. In total, 10 people have died, police said Monday.
Chief Supt. Alistair Dawson said the latest victim was a man who drowned on Monday when the car he was travelling in was washed off a flooded causeway in the town of Aramac, in central Queensland.
AUSTRALIAN FLOOD DISASTER
Greg Goebel, executive director of the Australian Red Cross, told CBC News Monday that the flooding in Rockhampton could get worse in the days ahead.
"It has already cut off the airport, all rail and all road access," he said. "And to date something like 400 houses are inundated with 2,500 more houses with water in their yards."
Goebel said the "major issue" is that flood waters are now slowly moving south, putting other communities at risk.
"When I flew down from Emerald back to Brisbane I could see out on the right-hand side of the airplane, this huge almost medusa-like tentacles of water, flying all the way down the centre of the state," he said.
"We are not out of the woods yet, that is for certain. And when people return there is going to be a long, long recovery effort needed to get people back to normality.
Goebel said that by Tuesday morning, the Red Cross will have established eight evacuation centres in five towns to help people affected by the flood.
Drenching rain that fell for days starting shortly before Christmas has produced flood waters that now cover an area the size of France and Germany combined in northeastern Queensland. The waters have filled rivers to overflowing and inundated at least 22 towns and cities in the cattle and fruit and vegetable farming region, as they drain slowly toward the coast.
State authorities say about 200,000 people have been affected by the floods, and Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Monday extended emergency relief to those affected, including low-interest loans to farmers to begin cleaning up and get their businesses running again.
"This is a major natural disaster, and recovery will take a significant amount of time," Gillard said. The damage could ultimately amount to hundreds of millions of dollars, she told reporters.
In Rockhampton, a coastal city of about 75,000 people, waters from the still-swelling Fitzroy River closed the airport and cut the main highway leading to the state capital of Brisbane.
Scores of families abandoned their homes for relief centres set up on high ground. Mayor Brad Carter has said about 40 per cent of the city could be affected by the surging waters, and residents could be forced to wait at least two weeks before returning home.
Authorities warned the Fitzroy would continue rising until late Tuesday or early Wednesday local time, cutting the northern road approach to the city as well.
Residents emptied supermarket shelves of food and bottled water in recent days as they stocked up to reduce the need to get around in waist-deep waters.
Acting defence minister Warren Snowdon said a C-130 military cargo plane would fly on Monday to a town north of Rockhampton carrying food, medical supplies and other items that would then be trucked to the stricken city. Another flight would follow on Tuesday if the highway into Rockhampton remained open.
Police rejected reports that some break-ins reported on cars and homes in Rockhampton overnight Sunday were incidents of looting related to the floods, saying a handful of burglaries were normal for the city.
Police have increased their patrols of flooded towns — television footage and news photographs showed uniformed officers wading thigh-deep through flood waters — to prevent trouble.
The rains that triggered the flooding have eased, and water levels were dropping in some towns. But officials said about 1,000 people were living in evacuation centres across Queensland, and it might be a month before the flood waters dry up completely.