Brisbane residents flee deadly flood

Australia's third-largest city had expected to be spared the violent deluge, but a normally sleepy river has turned into a raging monster.

BRISBANE // Meredith Evans spent Tuesday night watching the water creep up her back steps, at a rate of one step every hour. By yesterday morning she knew she had to leave her home, which is in the Brisbane neighbourhood of Paddington. So she moved her worldly goods upstairs and went to stay with friends.

Paddington and dozens of other low-lying suburbs in the Queensland capital were the scene of frantic activity yesterday as residents raced to leave. With the Brisbane River set to peak overnight, the central business district was expected to be swamped, along with nearly 20,000 homes.

"I'm preparing for the worst," said Mrs Evans.

Queensland's worst natural disaster has already claimed at least 13 lives, after flash floods ravaged the rural town of Toowoomba and neighbouring hamlets on Monday. Last night military helicopters joined the search for bodies in the wreckage of homes, and more than 40 people were still missing.

In Brisbane, the usually serene river that flows through the city of two million people has been transformed into a fast-moving brown torrent sweeping everything before it, including boats torn from their moorings. "I am feeling a sense of horror and awe at the power of the river," the mayor, Campbell Newman, said yesterday. "Sadly, in coming hours we will see bits of people's homes float down the river."

After days of bad news in which figures were constantly being revised, the Bureau of Meteorology late yesterday delivered a small and rare positive forecast - the floodwaters would crest about 30cm lower than earlier thought.

If correct, the new forecast meant the waters would not reach the depth of 1974 floods that swept the city. Queensland's premier, Anna Bligh, said the news was welcome, but of little comfort.

"This is still a major event, the city is much bigger, much more populated, and has many parts under flood that didn't even exist in 1974," she said. "We are still looking at an event which will cripple parts of our city."

Yesterday, the city centre was almost deserted, with shops shuttered and sandbagged. Many roads, already waterlogged, were closed, and traffic lights had stopped working because of power cuts. A few curious tourists wandered the streets. All day the river rose steadily, inundating waterfront office blocks and apartments, as well as the popular South Bank arts and shopping precinct.

In the suburb of Milton, barely more than a kilometre from the city centre, water was already lapping at the eaves of houses. Locals were using tin boats, canoes and even a Jet Ski to ferry their possessions to dry land. Jason Amos rescued several people stranded on balconies. "The water came up so quickly it trapped them," he said. "Before they knew, it was all around them. I heard them screaming out as I motored past."

In neighbouring Paddington, families were packing the content of their lives - fridges, couches, ironing boards, computers, children's bicycles - into the back of utility trucks.

Karen Junor and Daniel Smith didn't even know where they were going. "Karen woke me at 6am and there was water bubbling out of the cement underneath the house," said Mr Smith. "We knew it was time to leave."

Australia's third-largest city had little time to prepare for the river bursting its banks. Brisbane had been expected to escape the worst of the floods that have soaked rural and coastal towns across Queensland in recent weeks. But after the lethal events in Toowoomba, 125km to the west, residents were warned they faced inundation on a scale not seen since 1893.

While the forecast peak was revised slightly downwards yesterday, there were still fears that the impact would be devastating.

Some of the evacuees went to stay with family or friends; others took refuge in five emergency centres set up around the city. Lorna and Colin Wilkinson wanted to stay put in their riverfront apartment with their two cats, but were told they had to leave.

Last night they were preparing to sleep at the Brisbane Showgrounds, where one of the centres has been established. "We've no idea when we'll be allowed to go home," said Mrs Wilkinson.

The Brisbane River has been swollen by weeks of heavy rain, and by water from the Toowoomba flash floods surging downstream towards the sea. In addition, the massive Wivenhoe Dam - built to protect the city after the 1974 floods, which killed 14 people - is overflowing, and dam managers have been forced to release huge volumes of water into the river.

The flooding has transfixed Australia and is shaping up to become the nation's most expensive disaster, with an estimated price tag of at least US$5 billion (Dh18bn).

The relentless waters have shut down Queensland state's crucial coal industry and ruined crops across vast expanses of farmland.

With additional reporting by Associated Press