Monday, January 3, 2011

Australian planes rush in aid as floods continue

The death toll from severe flooding in northeastern Australia rose on Monday as authorities airlifted supplies to communities facing raging waters that were expected to rise for up to two more days.

Nine people were confirmed dead on Monday from the flooding, and another was reported missing and presumed dead, according to a spokeswoman for the Queensland Police Services Department.

Heavy rains began falling before Christmas, drenching Australia's northeast state of Queensland. At least 200,000 people in an area the size of France and Germany combined have been affected by the flooding, according to Paul Birch, senior hydrologist at Bureau of Meteorology.

The floodwaters have inundated at least 22 cities and towns in the region, The Associated Press reported.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh called for an emergency Cabinet meeting to be held on Wednesday in response to the flooding. "As Queensland faces its toughest hour, the cabinet will meet to immediately begin the significant rebuilding process," she said.

On Monday, the military flew in supplies into Rockhampton, a town of about 75,000, as water from the Fitzroy River spilled into streets, public buildings and homes. The local airport and main highway to the state capital of Brisbane were closed, according to a spokeswoman for the Queensland Police Services, forcing troops to fly into a nearby community and truck in fresh food, water and other supplies.

Queensland emergency officials, quoted by local media, said floodwaters in Rockhampton stood at about 30 feet, and risked rising to levels not seen since 1918.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard extended emergency relief to communities affected by the waters. She acknowledged the damage from the floods may run into hundreds of millions of dollars, and emergency response authorities in Queensland, a farming and cattle region in Australia, said it could take months to recover from the floods.

"This is a major natural disaster, and recovery will take a significant amount of time," she said at a news conference.

More than 3,000 volunteers were helping at 17 evacuation centers across Queensland, police officials said. Queensland police were regularly posting updated information on social networking Web sites.

Flooding began nearly two weeks ago as Cyclone Tasha crashed Australia's northeastern coast.

While the rainfall has lessened in Queensland, authorities warned the floodwaters will not peak until Tuesday or Wednesday.

"We're still getting warnings over thunderstorms, flash floods and hail stones," said the police spokeswoman. "This is far from over."