Torrential downpours pile misery on Australia

Torrential rains and flash floods trapped scores of people in homes and cars following a massive cyclone, piling more misery on Australia Saturday after weeks of record inundations.

As coastal residents pieced together homes and farms destroyed by Severe Tropical Cyclone Yasi, dramatic deluges brought by cyclone activity caused chaos in the state of Victoria, some 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) away.

Authorities urged residents of the small town of Koo Wee Rup, southeast of Melbourne, to evacuate for fear of flash floods, while more than 80 people were rescued from flood-bound houses and vehicles.

An English tourist, 26, was in critical condition with serious head injuries after a gum tree came down on her tent, and a 14-year-old girl was pulled from a swollen river. Emergency services fielded thousands of calls for help.

“There is a simple message for everybody in Victoria at the moment: please take care,” warned Victoria state premier Ted Baillieu.

“Whether you’re near the roads, whether you’re near floodwaters, please don’t drive through, ride through or play through floodwaters.”

Parts of Melbourne, Australia’s second biggest city, were lashed by 175 millimetres (6.8 inches) of rain overnight, while flash floods hit the town of Mildura after a record downpour of 200 millimetres on Friday afternoon.

The rains come in the wake of Australia’s worst cyclone in a century, which left a trail of destruction and a damage bill of billions of dollars (billions US) after hitting Queensland state on Wednesday, but miraculously caused no known deaths.

The category five storm — the highest level — laid waste to entire towns, hurled luxury yachts around like toys and shredded enormous swathes of banana and sugar crops, adding an estimated 0.25 percentage points to inflation.

“I’m amazed we survived it,” said banana farmer Daryl Webber, 42, who stood in his house as the roof was torn off, the windows were blown out and walls fell apart.

“The whole house was shaking, (wall) panels were flying everywhere. It was just horrendous. You wouldn’t believe the force of the winds,” he said.

The remains of homes and debris including fridges and pool tables littered the devastated coastal hamlet of Tully Heads, while some communities remained cut off by floods and fallen trees, hampering recovery efforts.

Two men who were reported missing turned up safe, along with a couple who were feared drowned after their yacht capsized and a teenager who jumped into a fast-flowing river to save his dog. The pet also survived.

Looters stole thousands of dollars’ (thousands US) worth of stock from a cyclone-hit Queensland pub, making off with its store of beer and the spirits from behind the bar.

“I think it is terrible that people take advantage in these situations. You lose faith in humans,” staff member Janet Lobegeier said.

Australia’s military scaled back operations to deal with weeks of floods, which affected three-quarters of Queensland, including the state capital Brisbane. But another 4,000 troops were helping clear up after the cyclone.

Swiss miner Xstrata resumed its operations at Mount Isa and Cloncurry, in Queensland’s north, after the downgraded storm failed to cause any damage.

Power was restored to 15,000 properties in tourist centre Cairns, a gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, as military aircraft prepared to fly in bottled water, tinned food and baby supplies because some roads remained impassable.

Tully Heads, which was virtually wiped off the map, was closed to the public and media as dazed residents wondered how to rebuild their lives with no homes, no power and little fuel and food.

Many people are living in patched-up homes with gaping holes covered by tarpaulin, and surviving hand-to-mouth until help arrives. Meanwhile, the local agricultural industry is in ruins.

“People say good old Queenslanders are tough and they can rebuild, but this is just too hard for us,” said elderly resident Sandra Cameron.