Catastrophic Australian floods claim first victim

Devastating floods in northeastern Australia claimed their first victim Sunday, with the body of a missing woman recovered as the surging waters continued to rise and a fresh storm loomed.

Emergency officials and police searched through the night by boat and helicopter for the 41-year-old swept from her car as she tried to cross a swamped causeway in the northern Gulf of Carpentaria region.

Police managed to save three children and another adult from the car but the woman disappeared before they could reach her.

“Searchers located the woman?s body around 10:20 am today about two kilometres (one mile) from the causeway,” police said.

There were fears for another man missing after his fishing boat was swamped Saturday afternoon near Gladstone, at the centre of the floods, and witnesses reported seeing a second man swept away in the swamped city of Rockhampton.

“These waters are exceptionally fast, they’re not to be trifled with and they’re not to be taken lightly,” said assistant police commissioner Alistair Dawson.

A severe storm was expected to sweep through the region late Sunday, bringing “damaging winds, very heavy rainfall, flash flooding and large hailstones” the weather bureau said, urging residents to take shelter.

Up to 200,000 people are estimated to have been hit by the floods which have left entire towns under water and cut off many more over an area the size of France and Germany combined, wreaking untold billions in damage to crops and the nation’s key mining industry.

“In many ways, it is a disaster of biblical proportions,” Queensland State Treasurer Andrew Fraser told reporters in flood-hit Bundaberg on Saturday.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who on Friday toured inundated regions, said the floods had been devastating and would have an economic impact.

Gillard said the mining sector had been particularly badly hit, adding that farmers, small businesses and tourism would also suffer.

Residents in the coastal town of Rockhampton were forced to flee the rising waters in darkness Saturday night, while helicopters delivered food and other supplies to about 20 towns hit by the deluge.

Rockhampton’s airport, a major regional hub, was closed to commercial traffic as the runways went under water while the deluge also cut main roads into the town and disrupted power supplies.

The town’s river is expected to peak at 9.4 metres (yards) Wednesday, threatening 2,000-4,000 homes, and mayor Brad Carter said desperate sandbagging was under way.

Rockhampton could be isolated for as many as 10 days, and though food shortages were not yet an issue, Carter said he was unsure how long supplies could last as the situation worsens.

“The water inundation is far more extensive than we thought it was. It’s very extensive,” Carter said after an aerial tour of the region on Sunday.

“The geographic area has an enormous amount of water to it either side of… the Fitzroy river, which has broken through its banks and is covering large agricultural areas,” said Carter.

Officials were warning of a critical drinking water shortage at the inland town of Dalby after its treatment plant was swamped, meaning supplies had to be trucked in.

In Bundaberg, in Queensland’s southeast, the clean-up was set to begin in about 300 homes and 120 businesses as flood waters recede, but other towns such as Theodore and Condamine remain empty of residents.

Deputy state premier Paul Lucas flew over the devastated region and warned much of the heartbreak was still ahead as the full extent of damage became clear.

“(There are) swimming pools filled with mud, houses where people are sweeping the mud out. The devastation is enormous,” said Lucas.

Offshore oil drilling operations have been suspended due to a tropical cyclone developing off Australia’s resources-rich west coast, which also forced the closure of major iron ore export ports.