Melbourne (AFP) Jan 26, 2011
Floodwaters engorged Australia's largest river on Wednesday, threatening more homes, as Prime Minister Julia Gillard called on Queen Elizabeth II to establish a new medal for disaster heroes.
The wall of water engulfing southeastern Victoria state swelled the Murray, a mighty river running 2,375 kilometres (1,475 miles) through three of Australia's seven territories, frustrating hopes it could be used as a buffer for threatened towns.
"We are cutting roads to try and take the water into different directions to the River Murray... But the Murray itself is coming up because of the recent floods on the Campaspe and the Goulburn (rivers)," said Max Fehring, mayor of Gunnawarra Shire Council.
"(It's) not coming up at a real great rate, but every time it comes up it gives us less opportunity to put water in the river, because of height levels," he told ABC Radio.
The torrent has swept through 62 towns across one third of Victoria, which was devastated just two years ago by the country's worst ever wildfires that killed 175 people.
An area larger than France and Germany combined has already been ravaged by floods in Queensland state, killing 35 people and wreaking billions of dollars in damage, wrecking crops and mines in the key farming and resources state.
Tens of thousands of homes have been waterlogged, while roads, railways and bridges were swept away. Nine people are still missing.
Gillard visited the shattered Queensland town of Toowoomba on Wednesday to spend the national Australia Day holiday with grieving and shocked residents, and pay tribute to the army of volunteers helping with the clean-up.
"We are grieving the loss of life, but we are also celebrating tremendous community spirit, as people work together in the most difficult of times, in the darkest of hours," Gillard said.
The prime minister said she had asked Queen Elizabeth II, Australia's head of state, to approve a new "National Emergency Medal", to be awarded with other honours on Australia Day for extraordinary efforts during disasters.
The medal would be backdated to allow recognition of "selfless and courageous acts" from the 2008 Victorian bushfires and the current flooding crisis, she said.
"We will never forget those we have lost in this period, but we should also never forget the community spirit that has been shown, by strangers who have done courageous things to help each other as flood water has threatened," she said.
The government made a special plea for the nation to remember flood victims Wednesday, commending those who turned their Australia Day barbecues and parties into fundraising events.
More than Aus$170 million dollars ($170 million) has been raised in public donations so far, including Aus$3.1 million offered by the New Zealand government.
earlier related report
Queensland police said that the grim find brings to 22 the number of people who have died in that state since January 10, when flash floods swept homes, cars and trees into the rushing waters in the Lockyer Valley west of Brisbane.
Nine people are still listed as missing after lightning floods which forced people on to the roofs of their homes and cars and plucked children from their carers' arms.
"The thorough search for people missing from the Lockyer Valley is ongoing," Queensland Police said in a statement, which said that 35 people had died in that state in flood-related incidents since November 30.
Record rainfall across eastern Australia, triggered by a strong La Nina system, generated massive flood zones in the north in December, with the waters eventually making their way to Brisbane and flooding thousands of homes.
The same weather system is blamed for torrential rains which hit the southeastern state of Victoria in January, giving some areas a year's rainfall in 24 hours, which have inundated a large area in that state's northwest.
The Victorian floodwaters are threatening small farming communities, and prompted the evacuation of thousands of residents this month, with reports that several homes have flooded as levees failed.
"The water is just coming in that quick, we just can't get a ahead of it at the moment," local Peter Laursen told ABC Radio from Murrabit.
"We are holding it in one area, but we just believe there is a lot more water to come."
State Emergency Service officials said the floodwaters were rising more slowly than expected, and this could mean they would have a lesser impact in terms of speed and height.
"It also means it's spreading out over a wider area down in the lower areas and that's going to result in more areas being inundated for potentially longer periods," SES deputy incident controller Keith Favelly said.
The Victorian floods are estimated to have killed at least 6,000 sheep and washed away 41,000 hectares of crops, costing the agricultural sector as much as $Aus2 billion in lost production and damaged infrastructure.
Treasurer Wayne Swan said the Queensland floods were "the biggest natural disaster in our history" in economic terms but added that the rebuilding process would ultimately act as a stimulus to the economy.
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