Australian floods expected to peak at Rockhampton

Queensland's cabinet meets in emergency session Wednesday with the floods in the town of Rockhampton expected to peak and fresh thunderstorm warnings issued in the state.

Australia's Bureau of Meteorology said that the Fitzroy river was expected to reach a height of 9.4 metres (almost 31 feet) at Rockhampton on Wednesday and would remain above the major flood level for a week after the peak.

Tens of thousands of people in Rockhampton braced for complete isolation as waters which have inundated an area bigger than France and Germany, and closed the town's airport and railway, lapped at the last remaining road link.

Police patrol the streets for looters by boat after the Fitzroy River broke its banks and inundated much of Rockhampton.
Police patrol the streets for looters by boat after the Fitzroy River broke its banks and inundated much of Rockhampton.

Early Wednesday meteorologists issued a severe thunderstorm warning for southern parts of Queensland, saying "very heavy rainfall, flash flooding" were likely, with the town of St George among the locations that could be affected.

They said separately that the Balonne river was expected to peak at "possibly higher than 14 metres" next Monday or Tuesday at St George, where residents have begun to evacuate and authorities were strengthening levees.

With more than 200,000 people affected across Queensland, the state cabinet meeting is expected to address the response to the flooding.

"Given the scale and size of this disaster and the prospect that we'll see waters sitting for potentially a couple of weeks... we will continue to have major issues to deal with throughout January," said state Premier Anna Bligh.

"The long-term impact will still take some time to determine but there are literally thousands of Queenslanders who need our support," she was quoted as saying by Australian Associated Press.

The United Nations said Tuesday that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was watching the situation "with growing alarm", although Australia had not made any request for assistance.

Rumours of crocodile sightings on Tuesday swept the besieged cattle-farming centre of Rockhampton, population 75,000, while snakes up to two metres (6.5 feet) long were spotted around the town centre.

The snakes, including highly venomous taipans, brown snakes and red-bellied blacks, are climbing trees and hiding in people's houses as they search for dry refuge, residents said.

"The snakes are a massive problem, I've shut all the doors because they're coming in," said Suzanne Miller, owner of the Pioneer Hotel pub, adding that her mother was "almost killed" by a brown snake.

"She is living on a boat near here and it was curled round the rope," Miller said. "She could feel the tongue flicking on to her face to test how far away it was, ready to bite, and then it jumped into her lap."

Miller said her mother's husband used a stick to flick the snake into the water.

Emergency officials warned that the snakes were aggressive, while crocodiles flushed from rivers by the rising floods could easily be mistaken for debris.

"(Snakes are) in their mating season and they've been flushed out of their environment... snakes are very, very cranky right now," State Emergency Service (SES) operations director Scott Mahaffey said.

"(And) the problem with crocodiles now is it's very, very hard to pick (them out) with the amount of debris," he added.

About 200 people were evacuated on foot or by boat, including two pregnant women who went into labour, and around 200 homes were already flooded on Tuesday.

Rockhampton, 500 kilometres (300 miles) northeast of Brisbane and a hub for the farming and coal-mining region, is now the focus for what officials call "biblical" floods affecting 200,000 people across Queensland state.

Weeks of heavy rains have swollen rivers to record levels, deluging mines and farms, washing away bridges and forcing military evacuations of entire towns by helicopter.

Ten people have died trying to negotiate fast-running waters in vehicles, swimming or on foot over the past month, while the disaster is expected to cost several billions of dollars (several billion US).

Flooded mines and railways and closed ports have hammered Queensland's all-important production of hard coking coal, much of it bound for urbanising Asia's steel mills.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed condolences Monday for the dead and offered aid, while neighbouring New Zealand promised to send an emergency response team.

In Rockhampton, the military trucked in supplies and police frog-marched one reluctant resident from his home, after the dwelling was considered too dangerous to remain in as the waters rose.

Other parts of the state are already cleaning up after the worst of the flooding passed, but officials warn relief and recovery operations could last for weeks.

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