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Volunteer army cleans up as Australian floods spread

by Staff Writers
Brisbane, Australia (AFP) Jan 15, 2011
An army of volunteers turned out Saturday to clean up Australia's third-largest city Brisbane after epic floods, as towns were evacuated in the country's south amid the rolling disaster.

Just as stricken areas in and around the eastern hub of Brisbane began the mammoth task of recovering from floods that killed at least 16, thousands of residents of southern Victoria state were forced to flee fast-rising waters.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said she was "obviously very concerned" about the 2,500 residents affected by floodwaters in central Victoria, which have spread across 29 towns and hit more than 1,000 properties.

While the waters had peaked in some areas of Victoria, they were yet to reach their maximum level in other parts of the state, as Australia's rolling flood crisis spread.

Flood waters, which have also hit the southern island of Tasmania this week, meanwhile kept more than 7,000 people isolated in northern New South Wales.

In devastated Brisbane, more than 1,300 kilometres (800 miles) northeast of the Victorian region hit by floods, more than 22,000 people volunteered to help clean up after the floods this week caused billions of dollars of damage.

Swathes of the city lie caked in a thick layer of stinking mud left behind after the Brisbane River burst its banks Wednesday, flooding houses up to their roofs, destroying infrastructure and sending debris and boats hurtling downstream.

"We came down today because we felt it was something that we needed to do... there's a moral obligation and social obligation as well," said volunteer Darren Moss.

Hundreds clutching buckets and brooms gathered at Brisbane bus depots to be taken to areas where homes were badly hit, while in the nearby town of Ipswich, hundreds more gathered to help clean out flood-hit houses there.

"As soon as the waters went down we looked at the devastation, we looked at people's dreams, all in tatters," Ipswich mayor Paul Pisasale told the ABC broadcaster.

"It has hit us by shock, but I can tell you we're coming back and we're coming back in a big way."

More than 80 towns in Queensland, including the state capital of Brisbane, have been hit by the once-in-a-century floods, which have covered an area larger than France and Germany combined in recent weeks.

The clean-up operation is yet to begin in regions west of Brisbane that were hit by a horrifying flash flood on Monday, killing at least 16 people and leaving more than 20 others missing. The grim search for bodies continues.

In the Lockyer Valley, dubbed the Valley of Death after a wall of water cascaded through it, flash floods uprooted entire houses and lifted up cars like paper cups, propelling them through the churning water.

In the badly hit town of Grantham, all roads were closed and the railway crossing has been ripped up and strewn with a boat, a caravan and a few cars.

More than 200 police were on Saturday hunting through the Grantham wreckage for the bodies of the missing, which some fear may never be recovered.

"People here are still in shock," said Rachel, a volunteer caring for Grantham evacuees in the nearby town of Helidon. "People have seen terrible things.

"My daughter was on the bank of the river -- she saw on the other bank a mother and her daughter on the roof of a car. The car was washed away in the river by the wall of water, and the two disappeared.

"Since then, my 13-year-old daughter has nightmares every night."

Another volunteer said: "We know a mother who was holding her 20-month-old baby in her arms. The water was so strong that it took the baby. The body is still missing. We'll probably never find the poor baby."

The floods have generated concern around the world, with US President Barack Obama calling Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard to say the US stood ready to help the nation recover from the disaster.

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