BRISBANE, Australia — Residents of Australia’s third-largest city woke Thursday to find their community submerged after muddy floodwaters pouring through streets reached their crest, with Queensland’s premier warning the task of rebuilding would reach “postwar proportions.”
Thousands of homes were filled with water, and many areas were without electricity. Officials told displaced residents it will be days before many of them can return to their houses; others were told their homes will never be habitable again.
In one spot of bright news, the swollen Brisbane River’s peak was about three feet (one meter) lower than predicted, at a depth slightly below that of 1974 floods that swept the city.
Still, waters in some areas had reached the tops of roofs, shut down roads and power and devastated entire neighbourhoods. Mayor Campbell Newman said 11,900 homes and 2,500 businesses had been completely inundated, with another 14,700 houses and 2,500 businesses at least partially covered in water.
“Queensland is reeling this morning from the worst natural disaster in our history and possibly in the history of our nation,” state Premier Anna Bligh told reporters. “We’ve seen three-quarters of our state having experienced the devastation of raging floodwaters and we now face a reconstruction task of postwar proportions.”
The flooding, which has killed 23 people since late November, has submerged dozens of towns — some three times — and left an area the size of Germany and France combined under water. Highways and rail lines have been washed away in the disaster.
At least 74 people are missing, and the death toll is expected to rise. Many of those unaccounted for disappeared from around Toowoomba, a city west of Brisbane that saw massive flash floods sweep away cars and people.
Thirteen died in that flood alone, with police finding the latest body in a field on Thursday. Deputy Police Commissioner Ian Stewart warned that number was likely to rise as search and rescue teams accessed devastated areas.
“We’ve got to brace ourselves for more bad news,” Stewart said.
In Brisbane, roads were flooded, railway lines were cut and sewage began spilling into the floodwaters. People moved about in kayaks, rowboats and even on surfboards. Boats torn from their moorings floated down an engorged river. Brisbane’s office buildings stood empty with the normally bustling central business district transformed into a watery ghost town.
A 300-meter stretch of a pedestrian boardwalk weighing 300 tons broke loose and drifted downstream before two tug boats were able to steer it away from bridges.
Despite the devastation, many remained thankful the river had spared them the worst of its fury.
“There’s a fair bit of relief around this morning — we’re thanking our stars a bit, that’s for sure,” said Andrew Turner, whose house in the flooded suburb of Graceville escaped inundation. “We were pretty much braced for the worst and were all but packed up and ready to go.”
Lisa Sully, who lives in the nearby suburb of Sherwood, did have some water in her home — but she still felt lucky on Thursday.
“I can handle this,” she said. “Mentally, I was prepared for worse.”
The death toll has shocked Australians, no strangers to deadly natural disasters like the wildfires that killed 173 in a single day two years ago.
One tale has particularly transfixed the country: a 13-year-old boy caught in the flood who told strangers to save his 10-year-old brother first and died as a result.
Jordan and Blake Rice were in the car with their mother, Donna, when a wall of water pummeled Toowoomba on Monday. After the torrent of water knocked one rescuer over, another man managed to reach the car, The Australian newspaper reported. At Jordan’s insistence, he pulled Blake out first, according to a third brother, Kyle.
“Courage kicked in, and he would rather his little brother would live,” the 16-year-old told the newspaper. Jordan and his mother were washed away before the men were able to get back to them.
By Wednesday, Jordan’s name was among the top 10 most used terms on Twitter, as a wave of tweets hailed him as a “true hero” of the Queensland floods.
In contrast to the wall of water that swallowed Toowoomba, Brisbane’s crisis has been marked by the waters’ slow but steady progress.
“I was quite panicked after seeing Toowoomba,” Ali Cook, of Brisbane, said Wednesday. “But it’s been such a slow rise. It’s still rising quite a lot.”
The waters have overwhelmed a dam built to protect Brisbane after the 1974 deluge. Officials have opened the floodgates of the dam to prevent a greater disaster, contributing to the flooding downtown.
Though the full extent of the damage won’t be known until the water is gone, even before Brisbane was threatened, Bligh estimated a cleanup and rebuilding to total around $5 billion.
Add to that, the damage to economy: Queensland’s coal industry has virtually shut down, costing millions in deferred exports and sending global prices higher. Vegetables, fruit and sugarcane crops in the rich agricultural region have been wiped out, and prices are due to skyrocket as a result.
Water levels were expected to stay at peak levels until at least Saturday, but many people won’t be able to access their homes for several days beyond that, Bligh said. About 2,100 streets were covered in water and more than 4,000 people spent the night in evacuation centres.
Energex, Brisbane’s main power company, started switching off electricity to some parts of the city as a precaution against electrocution. Almost 115,000 homes were without power across Queensland by Thursday, the company said.
West of Brisbane, in the city of Ipswich, home to about 15,000 people, 3,000 properties were swamped by the waters, and 1,100 people had fled to evacuation centres, Mayor Paul Pisasale said. The floods also reached further into New South Wales, causing about 3,000 people to leave their homes there.
In Ipswich, video showed horses swimming through the brown waters, pausing to rest their heads on the roof of a house — the only dry spot they could reach.