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Thousands flee ‘biblical’ flooding in Queensland

The floods devastating a vast area of Australia were last night predicted to worsen with the threat of fresh heavy rainfall as thousands of people flee their homes and the authorities fight a disaster of “biblical proportions”.

A woman swept away while trying to cross one of dozens of swollen rivers in Queensland became the latest of what is thought to be eight victims of the deluge.

It has put an area the size of France and Germany combined under water and affected 200,000 people in Australia's third-most-populous state. So far, 22 towns have been inundated.

The coastal town of Rockhampton, some 300 miles north of Brisbane and home to 75,000 people, was the focus of an emergency operation yesterday after all its road and rail links were cut off and its airport closed.

Some 1,400 homes have been abandoned and the mayor warned that 40% of the town could be affected by surging waters of up to 30ft, which are not expected to peak for another 72 hours.

Officials said that the clean-up costs from the flooding, which has hit about half of Queensland's 715,305 square miles of territory, would reach billions of pounds.

The human and economic cost of the disaster could yet deepen after forecasters warned that a severe storm due to cross the southern half of the state overnight would bring with it damaging winds, renewed heavy rainfall, hailstones and further flash flooding.

Alistair Dawson, Queensland's acting assistant police commissioner, said: “It's hard to make the call that the worst is behind us. It's a unique event — parts of the state are still in response mode while others are in recovery. I think we're in the middle of the event.”

Days of heavy rain in the last week saw a tide of muddy water sweep across the state, breaking the banks of 10 rivers as it made its way down from a huge inland catchment area to the coast.

States of natural disaster are declared in 41 of Queensland's 73 municipalities.

Andrew Fraser, the treasurer of Queensland, said: “In many ways it is a disaster of biblical proportions.”

In Emerald, about 170 miles inland from Rockhampton, some residents defied advice to stay away and began to inspect properties.

More than 1,000 houses had been inundated by floodwater and most of the town's businesses have been affected, prompting the Prime Minister Julia Gillard to announce a payment of up to A$1,000 (£650) per person to Queenslanders who have lost their homes.

Amid fears of looting and plans to fly in troops to help the recovery, there were warnings that the floods will have an economic impact on Queensland, which accounts for about a fifth of Australia's £800bn economy.

As the water receded in some areas a new threat emerged, this time from wildlife. Authorities warned that the floodwaters had brought out a plague of dangerous pests, including snakes.

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