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Brisbane on edge of a flooding abyss

By Kathy Marks in Brisbane

Brisbane is drowning. The usually placid river that winds through its heart has become an angry torrent swallowing up large chunks of |the city in he worst floods in the Queensland capital for nearly 40 years.

Up to 27,000 homes were expected to be inundated overnight as the Brisbane River, swollen by weeks of heavy rain, reached a height of 17ft.

The last time that happened was in 1974, a date etched in Brisbanites' memories.

The Queensland premier Anna Bligh warned: “We are facing a reconstruction effort of post-war proportions.”

In one spot of bright news, the swollen Brisbane River's peak was about three feet (one metre) lower than predicted, at a depth slightly below that of 1974 floods that swept the city.

“I haven't seen this since I was a girl,” said one woman, surveying the swirling waters engulfing her neighbourhood.

The city centre was unnaturally quiet yesterday, with shops shuttered and sandbagged. Many roads, already waterlogged, were closed; a few curious tourists wandered the streets. All day the river rose, inundating waterfront office blocks and apartments as well as the South Bank shopping precinct.

A mile away, in the suburb of Paddington, families were packing their lives — fridges, couches, ironing boards, computers, children's bicycles — into pick-up trucks.

Karen Junor and Daniel Smith |didn't know where they would go.

“Karen woke me at 6am and there was water bubbling out of the cement underneath the house,” said Mr Smith.

Meredith Evans moved her worldly goods upstairs after watching the flood advance up her back steps at a rate of one step every hour. Her back garden was submerged, with just the tip of a white parasol poking out. In Milton, a nearby suburb, water was lapping at the eaves of houses and locals were ferrying their possessions to dry land in tin boats and canoes.

Australia's third-largest city had little time to prepare. Brisbane had been expected to escape the worst of the floods that have affected towns across Queensland, destroying infrastructure and halting the state's lucrative coal-mining industry — costing it up to $13bn (£8.2m).

Then a freak storm hit Toowoomba, 80 miles to the west, on Monday, and the water from flash floods had only one way to go: to the coast.

The death toll in the Toowoomba area rose to 13 yesterday after search teams entered wrecked townships, such as the once-picturesque Grantham, for the first time. Forty people were still missing. But with the Brisbane River predicted to peak the attention of most Australians was on the Queensland capital, with prayers offered up for the safety of its two million residents.

Yesterday dawned sunny and clear in Brisbane, but no one was deceived.

“The water's on its way; there's no stopping it now,” said one local. The Lord Mayor, Campbell Newman, spoke of “a sense of horror and awe at the power of the river”.

That power was on display as the fast-moving waterway swept everything before it, including boats torn from their moorings.

In dozens of low-lying suburbs an army of young men waded chest-deep through muddy pools, forming human chains to help strangers empty their houses.

Jason Amos plucked stranded souls off balconies in Milton, then went out rescuing cats and dogs. Contemplating the flood waters, he remarked: “It's a silent killer that just creeps up.”

About 127,000 homes were without power yesterday, and more than 4,000 people spent last night in evacuation centres.

One centre, in the Brisbane Showgrounds, was visited by the Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who observed: “There's a real sense of everyone pulling together.”

Elsewhere, the former Prime Minis

ter and local MP Kevin Rudd looked at the damage to his electorate and said: “We're used to extremes. This is the extreme of extremes.”

Venturing downstairs yesterday, he had found his fridge floating in the hallway, and grabbed some dumplings out of the freezer for breakfast. The youth worker shrugged when asked when he planned to leave: “Dunno — maybe when we've drunk enough. We can swim, and we've got surfboards.”

A boat trip through this watery landscape was a singular experience. There were street signs but no streets. Parking signs, and a sign indicating bus route 476, peeked out of the brown expanse. Pink roses had sprouted, apparently from nowhere. In a school playground, only a basketball net was visible.

Back on dry land, it was unsettling standing on the edge of the flood — you could see the water inching its way forward. “It's quite scary,” said Lorna Wilkinson, who sought refuge at the Showgrounds after she and her husband, Colin, were forced to leave their riverside apartment.\[s.alexander\]After the 1974 floods the massive Wivenhoe Dam was built to protect the city.

“They told us we'd never have floods like that again,” said resident Mrs Wilkinson.

“But now — and it's not so long ago that the drought was so bad here we weren't allowed to water our gardens — here we go again.”

l More than 230 people have died in south-eastern Brazil after torrential rain caused floods and landslides in towns around Rio de Janeiro.

More than 120 people are understood to have died in mudslides around the mountain town of Teresopolis.

A number of firefighters were killed in Nova Friburgo, with up to 100 believed dead in the region.

With many people missing in |remote areas, the death toll is expected to increase.

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