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Veteran pilot astounded by Australian floods

Shock as Australians return to flood-hit homes
Rockhampton, Australia (AFP) Jan 7, 2011 - Australians were greeted by scenes of devastation as they picked through their flood-shattered homes, with forecasts of more heavy rain Friday threatening a multi-million dollar clean-up. More than 300 houses have been completely inundated by the floods caused by the torrential rain which has lashed Queensland for weeks, wiping out crops, slashing mine production and forcing thousands from their homes. The large town of Rockhampton moved into recovery mode as the massive volume of water -- estimated to cover an area the size of France and Germany combined -- moved towards the sea, while residents of other communities returned home. "It's devastation," said publican Shane Hickey as he surveyed the impact of the one-metre (three-feet) high inundation of his business in Condamine, west of Brisbane.

Hickey, allowed back into the town along with other evacuated residents on Thursday, said it looked like a cyclone had hit his Condamine Bell Hotel. "It's just flattened everything, all the grass is mud, all the plants have been torn out of the ground, the trees have gone over and are just covered in silt and mud," he told Australian news agency AAP. "All the fridges are gone, the freezers, washing machines, all the laundry. "It smells. You think to yourself the best way to fix this up is to just bulldoze the lot and start again."

Inland of Rockhampton in Emerald, which suffered 80 percent floods, the clean-up was well underway with residents removing rubbish and sorting out their homes. But the waters are set to recede slowly from Rockhampton, which is facing another dump of heavy rainfall over the weekend, and residents are not expected to be able to return to their homes for another week. Mayor Brad Carter said the "enormous body of water", which animal protection officials say is seething with up to one million snakes and deadly saltwater crocodiles, was moving slowly. "We are not going to see much movement, just a slight drop, so it will be a long time before many of our residents can return to their homes," Carter told the Seven Network on Friday.

The full impact of the flood is not yet known but the Queensland government has estimated the total damage bill will hit about $150 million. Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said heartache was in store for many residents who would be returning to towns such as Theodore, which was completely evacuated during the floods, to inspect their homes. "They're coming home to a lot of heartache, a lot of suffering and for many of them the first glimpse of what's been left behind of what was their precious possessions, their homes," Bligh told the Nine Network. "I think it's going to be a very painful process."
by Staff Writers
Rockhampton, Australia (AFP) Jan 7, 2011
If Rockhampton is suffering its worst ever floods, Australian rescue chief John Fisher ought to know -- flying overhead in his helicopter, the veteran pilot has seen them all.

"A lot of people around this place have seen floods, but not of this dimension before," said Fisher, one eye on the storm clouds gathering overhead.

"The extent of water out there in the Fitzroy (river), it's astounding how far it's gone. It's drained across the floodplains, particularly Rocky where it comes into the big delta. It's really stretched to its outermost limits."

A storm has forced Fisher to take a break from his hectic schedule of supply drops and evacuations, and he watches real-time weather maps stream on a nearby computer screen, discussing logistics with emergency officials.

Paper maps are pinned on an easel, and a whiteboard lists jobs for the four helicopters refuelling on the small green nearby.

Rockhampton's "Heritage Village" tourist park, a showcase of historic Australian life, seems an odd base for the vital helicopter operations, but the airport is swamped and the site's proximity to town makes it an ideal makeshift helipad.

"We're going to collect two English tourists who've found themselves stranded by the floods," Fisher chuckles, gesturing at the darkening sky.

"But we avoid those things (storms), they're not very pleasant."

Regional fire and rescue manager Fisher doesn't think himself a hero, but for the scores of families isolated by Australia's unprecedented floodwaters he's their lifeline to the outside world, bringing food and medicine and dropping fodder to water-bound cattle.

His sleek red chopper, Hannah, is laden with 200 kilograms (400 pounds) of groceries to fly to five families in a remote area surrounded by mucky water -- enough for the four or five weeks before the deluge recedes.

Fisher, who has been in aerial rescue for more than 20 years, insists it's all routine -- "flying helicopters and that sort of thing isn't that stressful" -- but his team must delicately balance priorities and resources.

Medical emergencies worry him most, and there have been a few since flooding hit, including midnight call-outs for Black Hawk crews on loan from the military for "the very pointy end of those more difficult jobs".

"It might be a heart attack, suspected heart attack, it might be a broken leg -- all of those things that might normally have gone through a triple-0 (emergency) call to the ambulance now might mean a helicopter ride," Fisher said.

Has he been hugged? "Not yet, no," but people are "always keen to see us" and there's definitely still time. Parts of the until-recently parched region could remain cut off by water or road damage for at least a month.

"Essentially the landscape has filled up... in pretty much all of central Queensland, and that's a huge amount of country," said Fisher, who said formerly drought-declared Rockhampton (left drought in May 2010) went from its worst ever wildfires to its worst floods in a little over 12 months.

"Two years ago we got a bit of rain but this is the real end of the drought," he added. "Fires, floods, we've got the lot."




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Australian mayor says flood recovery may take a year
Rockhampton, Australia (AFP) Jan 6, 2011
It could take a year for Rockhampton to recover from disastrous floods, the Australian town's mayor said Thursday, as the waters threatened the neighbouring state of New South Wales. "I think that this could drag on for 12 months," Mayor Brad Carter said, adding that it would take three weeks before Rockhampton's airport reopened, even though the floods appeared to have peaked just below the ... read more

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