Brisbane floods raise health alarm

People in Brisbane and surrounding communities are starting to see the full extent of the devastation from floods that swamped thousands of homes and left streets covered with a mix of filthy water, mud and debris.

Some of the missing may never be found, police warn

People in Brisbane and surrounding communities are starting to see the full extent of the devastation from floods that swamped thousands of homes and left streets covered with filthy water, mud and debris.

Floodwaters that poured through parts of Australia's third-largest city are starting to recede, but officials are warning local residents to be careful as they move back into flood-hit areas.

Many areas still don't have power, and officials said the standing water and mud could cause health problems.

"There are large-scale health concerns — such as the quality of drinking water, that is our first priority," Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said,

She urged people to avoid walking through standing water without boots.

"That water is toxic," she said, noting that people could get infections if open cuts or wounds were exposed to the water. 

WEATHER PATTERNS

Australia is being hit hard by two concurrent weather phenomena: La Nina and monsoon season.

La Nina happens when sea surface temperatures are cooler than normal in the eastern Pacific and warmer than normal in the western Pacific, strengthening easterly trade winds. Those strong winds drag warm, moist air along the Australian coastline, causing persistent rain clouds and thunderstorms.

At the same time, Australia is in the early stages of its annual monsoon season, which typically begins in late December or early January and runs until April. During this season, dry easterly trade winds collide with moisture-laden northwesterly monsoon winds — also in northern Australia.

Source: CBC meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe

She also encouraged people to use insect repellant to help fight the swarms of mosquitoes.

"It's mosquito central out there," she said.

Dr. Andrew Langley from the Sunshine Coast Public Health Unit said mosquito numbers will rise once flooding recedes and water starts to pool.

"We recommend people try and clear water sources on their property and wear insect repellents when they're outdoors," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Mayor Campbell Newman warned people not to eat perishable items or food that might have been contaminated by floodwater, saying the city would put dumpsters out in flood-affected areas to collect tainted products. 

'Heartache and grief' after flood

"There is a lot of heartache and grief as people start to see for the first time what has happened to their homes and their streets," Bligh said.

"In some cases, we have street after street after street where every home has been inundated to the roof level."

Newman told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that many people have offered to help with the cleanup.

"If you're unskilled but able-bodied, what we'd like you to do is, if you know somebody that you can directly go and help, go and help them," he said.

Men use a road sign to push mud off a road as floodwaters recede in the Brisbane suburb of Westend on Friday. ((Tim Wimborne/Reuters))

He said the city will also set up a registry to help organize people hoping to help, though he cautioned that they should be ready to do "some hard work."

Helpers must also work safely, he said.

"We just have one message: If you're going to turn up to help, wear boots, not thongs. Wear long trousers, sunscreen."

Peter Martin, assistant commissioner with the Brisbane District Disaster Co-ordinator, urged people to avoid unnecessary travel, saying many roads were in poor condition.

PHOTOS

Send us your photos and videos of the flooding and cleanup in Australia.

"Road conditions are not at their best with potholes, washouts and slippery surfaces, not to mention debris that may be across the roads," he said in a statement.

The mayor said the next priority for the city is to clear debris and get the road network open so the city can "come to life."

Many people who returned home found they were still without power. Mike Swanston, a spokesman for the local utility, said a number of power supply points were still under water and mud.

"I'm aghast at the amount of damage we're seeing," he said.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation said about 40,000 homes were still without power across southeast Queensland, which has been hit by weeks of flooding.

Shopowner Liz Marsden stands in front of her flood-damaged carpet shop in the town of Ipswich on Friday. ((Mick Tsikas/Reuters) )

The military was delivering food, clothes and other supplies to areas still cut off by the waters.

"There's a lot of dirt, a lot of filth, a lot of mess that needs to be cleaned up," Prime Minister Julia Gillard said. "We've been through some very difficult days and there's still a lot to go through in the weeks and months that lie ahead."

Search for survivors

In towns upstream of Brisbane, emergency crews and soldiers picked their way through debris looking for more victims. Weeks of flooding across Australia's northeast have caused 26 deaths, and at least 53 people were still missing.

Most of the people still unaccounted for are from around Toowoomba, a city west of Brisbane in the Lockyer Valley, where a sudden downpour caused a flash flood likened to an inland tsunami.

Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson said Friday that officials may never be able to find everyone swept away by the raging torrent.

"We would certainly hope they would find them all," Atkinson said. "Regrettably, we could not exclude completely the possibility that some may never be found."

Brisbane has also increased its police presence in the central business district and other affected communities to try to prevent looting.

The flooding across Queensland has submerged dozens of towns — some three times — after several weeks of driving rain fell in the tropical northeast, washing out roads and rail lines.

Damage estimates were already at $5 billion before floodwaters swamped Brisbane.

Heavy rains in the southern state of Victoria were also causing flooding there. Around 2,000 people from 400 homes in the state have been evacuated, State Emergency Service spokeswoman Jilly Charlwood said. In the state capital of Melbourne, Australia's second largest city, the Yarra River washed over its banks and onto an adjacent pedestrian walkway, she said.

With files from The Associated Press and The Australian Broadcasting Corporation