Rockhampton, Australia (AFP) Jan 4, 2011
The Australian military prepared Tuesday to step up efforts to supply the city of Rockhampton, which has been cut off by the rising waters.
Up to 200,000 people are estimated to have been hit by the fast-flowing waters that have inundated 22 rural towns in the country's northeast, across an area the size of France and Germany.
Early Tuesday the Australian Bureau of Meteorology issued several updated flood warnings, one saying the Fitzroy river was 9.15 metres (almost 30 feet) at Rockhampton and "rising slowly with major flooding".
It is not expected to peak -- at levels not seen for more than 55 years -- until Wednesday, the bureau added, with major flooding continuing for a week after that.
Other rivers across Queensland were also still rising, while in some parts of the state flooding was expected to ease slowly.
With the last land route to Rockhampton cut, three Australian Defence Force helicopters will provide the city's only lifeline for food and medical supplies.
The military rushed in food and medical supplies Monday as the floods rose around the city.
"Looks like Rockhampton's in the middle of an inland sea," Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said after flying over the area. "The amount of water coming down these river systems is nothing short of astonishing.
Bligh later said that Rockhampton had been cut off, with the last route into the town inundated.
"The highway is cut at Rockhampton," Bligh told ABC radio. "Rockhampton is now completely stranded -- a town of 75,000 people -- no airport, rail or road."
"The affected area is greater than the size of New South Wales (state), with the worst still to come in communities like Rockhampton," Bligh said.
"Supplying them with food, ensuring that we keep them safe during this flood is absolutely critical."
Bligh said floods had also halted operations at 75 per cent of Queensland's coal fields, which supplied half of the world's coking coal, an essential ingredient in steel manufacturing.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Monday offered emergency funds to people affected by the floods, including farmers more used to battling crippling droughts, as well as to small businesses.
"When the floodwaters recede, we are going to see a lot of damage but we will obviously be working with the state government to rebuild that essential community infrastructure," Gillard told reporters in Sydney.
"All in all, we know hundreds of millions of dollars are going to flow into Queensland."
Gillard, who toured some of the devastated areas Friday, said that for some communities these were "the biggest floods they have ever seen" and warned people to be aware of the risks of the fast-flowing waters.
Police on Monday confirmed the third death since the floods were declared a disaster, that of a man who drowned after his vehicle was swept into a flooded river.
His death followed that of a man who died after abandoning his boat Saturday as it took on water, and a woman who drowned as she was swept away by surging waters that swamped her car.
Ten people have now died in flood-related accidents since November 30 -- including three whose vehicles were swept away, two people who attempted to swim in fast-flowing waters, a man who was knocked off a footbridge and a girl who drowned while trying to walk across a river.
Queensland state assistant police commissioner Alistair Dawson has warned the emergency could drag on for a month, saying that, while parts of the state were in recovery mode, others were bracing for the worst.
Rockhampton Mayor Brad Carter said the flooding, set to peak in Wednesday in the city, would take a long time to recede.
"We expect to have our airport closed for the best part of three weeks," he told reporters Monday.
The floods are wreaking untold billions of dollars in damage to crops and Australia's key mining industry, while farmers, small businesses and tourism are also expected to suffer.
In Bundaberg, in Queensland's southeast, the clean-up had begun in about 300 homes and 120 businesses as flood waters receded, but other towns such as Theodore and Condamine remained empty of residents.
"It's just devastating," Queenslander Beryl Callaghan told Sky News after returning to her water-damaged home.
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