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Brisbane braced for flood terror

By Kathy Marks

Residents of Australia's third-largest city were warned yesterday to prepare for the worst floods in more than a century as raging waters that have killed at least 11 people in inland Queensland towns surged towards the state capital, Brisbane.

Residents of Australia's third-largest city were warned yesterday to prepare for the worst floods in more than a century as raging waters that have killed at least 11 people in inland Queensland towns surged towards the state capital, Brisbane.

The abrupt escalation of the flood crisis came after a freak storm sent a wall of water crashing through Toowoomba, 80 miles west of Brisbane, and neighbouring towns on Monday. Last night 77 people were still missing in the Lockyer Valley area, with more torrential downpours hampering the search and rescue operation.

Australians were still struggling to come to grips with the sudden tragedy in the Lockyer Valley when yet more dire warnings were issued — this time for Brisbane, which had been expected to escape relatively lightly. Yesterday forecasters said the Brisbane River was poised to break its banks in spectacular fashion, reaching a peak on Thursday and swamping 6,500 homes and businesses.

The city centre emptied almost instantly with shops closing and office workers fleeing by bus, train and car. Thousands of people in low-lying suburbs were urged to leave their homes, with the Brisbane Lord Mayor Campbell Newman describing the situation as “very serious”. Supermarkets reported panic buying and military helicopters were on standby.

In the Lockyer Valley, the 11 confirmed fatalities include at least five children. The state premier Anna Bligh said the death toll would rise “potentially quite dramatically”, and she revealed that whole families were among the missing. “Mother Nature has delivered something terrible in the last 48 hours, but there's more to go,” she said.

Queenslanders have been battling floods for weeks, with river after swollen river bursting its banks, but until Monday the |waters were rising slowly, giving people time to evacuate. What happened in the Toowoomba area — where terrified people clung to trees and telegraph poles as the water rushed through — has changed the whole tenor of the crisis.

Although there had been warnings of flash floods, the Lockyer Valley was completely unprepared for the “inland tsunami” that tossed cars around like corks and lifted houses off their foundations. Ms Bligh said the “incredibly intense” deluge that preceded the lethal events — an estimated 150mm of rain fell in half-an-hour — could not have been predicted.

Brisbane, a city of two million, has at least had more notice of the natural catastrophe heading its way. But disaster management officials fear its impact will be massive.

Brisbane's last major flood was in 1974, after which the Wivenhoe Dam was built to protect the city. But the dam is already well over capacity after weeks of heavy rain, and when the torrent of water from Toowoomba reaches the coast dam managers will have to release it into the Brisbane River.

The result, it is feared, will be floods of a magnitude not seen since 1893, with 15,000 people expected to be affected. Mr Newman said: “Today is very significant, tomorrow is bad, and Thursday is going to be devastating.” A total of 18 people have died in Queensland's worst floods for at least half a century; the latest casualties include a mother and two children whose car was swept away.

In the Toowoomba area 40 people were pulled to safety from rooftops. Sixty residents who sought refuge in a primary school in the town of Grantham remained huddled there without power yesterday, waiting to be rescued.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said she was “absolutely shocked” by TV footage of the flash flooding. “The power of nature can still be a truly frightening power, and we've seen that on display in this country,” she said.

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