Since they began their onslaught last month, the waters have killed 16 people across Queensland, tearing towns apart, destroying infrastructure and threatening the State's economy.

Jordan Rice was on the way back from a trip to buy a school uniform for the new term when, standing on the roof of his mother's car at a little after two o'clock on the afternoon of January 10, he made his choice.

That he couldn't swim and must have been terrified as floodwaters rose around him, his mother and little brother only made the 13-year-old's decision more exceptional.

By the time a rescuer had swum to the family's car, Jordan's mind was made up. “Save my brother first,” he said.

The man did as he was asked, and Jordan's 10-year-old brother, Blake, was hauled to safety. The teenager and his mother, Donna, were not so lucky.

The rope broke as the rescuer tried to tie it around them and the pair were swept through the flooded streets of Toowoomba. They grasped a tree, but the waters were too strong and mother and son were carried downstream to their deaths, becoming two of the 10 people known to have died when an inland tsunami roared through the Queensland town three days ago.

“I can only imagine what was going on inside to give up his life to save his brother, even though he was petrified of water,” his father, John Tyson, told the Toowoomba Chronicle. “He is our little hero.” As news of the teenager's sacrifice spread around the world yesterday, Jordan Rice became the public face of a growing disaster, with Australia struggling to cope with its worst floods in a century.

Since they began their onslaught last month, the waters have killed 16 people across Queensland, tearing towns apart, destroying infrastructure and threatening the state's economy.

Brisbane, third largest city

Brisbane, the third largest city in the country, is still braced for the worst of the deluge, which is expected to hit soon and bring chaos to tens of thousands of people in the next week.

“We are in the grip of a very serious natural disaster,” said Anna Bligh, Queensland's state premier. “Brisbane will go to sleep tonight and wake up to scenes many will never have seen before in their lives.” Australia's Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, visited Brisbane and described the scale of the devastation as “mind-boggling”.

The flood peak hit Ipswich, a satellite town to the west of Brisbane, late on January 12. More than 1,500 residents sheltered in evacuation centres, while others fled their homes with little more than the clothes they wore. The town's mayor, Paul Pisasale, said that about 6,000 homes had been saved from flooding because the water had peaked at 19.4 metres, about a metre below expectations. Those hundred-odd centimetres, he explained, were “the difference between bad news and devastation.”

Devastating floods of 1974

There had been fears that the enormous dam built to protect against a repeat of the devastating floods of 1974 was becoming dangerously full and threatening to flood Brisbane with even more water. According to one report, the Wivenhoe dam was close to capacity and was flushing the equivalent of three Sydney Harbours' worth of water into swollen rivers.

However, engineers managed to lower the flow levels enough to start managing the flooded Brisbane river.

A government source said that at its peak the dam had been 190 per cent full, and the water level about 60cm below the point where it would have surged out of control and threatened the entire city.

As the rains moved south, major rivers in New South Wales began flooding or threatening to break their banks, forcing 3,000 people to leave some rural areas. In Victoria state, in the south-east, heavy rain caused flash flooding and landslides.

Brisbane residents were pushing food-laden shopping trolleys through already submerged streets, wading in shoulder-high water to rescue possessions, and watching as boats and pontoons were ripped from their moorings on the Brisbane river.

The city's mayor, Campbell Newman, said he felt “a sense of horror and awe” at the river's power, and warned that the coming waters could take three or four days to subside. “Sadly, in coming hours we will see bits of people's homes float down the river,” he said.

Some already knew all too well how that felt. “This is my whole life, everything is gone,” said Kim Hung, manager of the Salt ‘n' Pepper catering business, as two friends floated a coffee machine toward higher ground. “I never thought it would get this bad.” As the waters rose, strangers formed human chains, sometimes in chest-high water, to pass possessions from flooded homes to dry land.

Others had already fled to higher ground or to the evacuation centres that already shelter more than 3,500 people. Those who had not decided what to do were running out of time, said Bligh. Among the numerous tragedies, there were growing fears on January 12 for a Toowoomba-based man who was last seen sitting on the roof of his stranded car with his wife and young son. News footage showed James Perry awaiting rescue after trying to cross a river near the town of Grantham. Perry's wife, Jenny, and his son, Ted, were saved by a helicopter, but when it returned it could not find Perry or his car. Perry, 39, is one of more than 50 people declared missing in the region.

Brisbane's port was closed and the power company Energex cut supplies to some low-lying areas of the city, including parts of the financial district, for fear that power lines could electrify floodwaters. Nearly 80,000 homes in the south-east of Queensland were without electricity.

Threat of disease

The height and force of the water is not the only threat: raw sewage has already spilled into rivers, raising the spectre of disease as floodwaters become contaminated. That did not seem to bother the teenagers paddling on surfboards through the stifling heat of Brisbane's water-logged suburbs, oblivious to debris and disease.

But many who live in Brisbane's water-logged suburbs have been doing what they can to prepare for the surge that is expected to leave up to 30,000 homes under water.

Scott MacKenzie wiped the sweat from his brow as he floated in an inflatable dinghy over the filthy, spider-speckled water towards his house.

Like many of the city's houses, his is built on stilts — a flood protection measure — and the front door is two metres above the ground. Slowly but steadily, the water was engulfing entire suburbs. The traffic lights were out, the phone lines increasingly unreliable, and there was talk of petrol stations running dry and bare supermarket shelves.

MacKenzie, an experienced renovator and qualified electrician, reckoned the kitchen and most of the walls would collapse. It was not the first time he had experienced a flood. In 1974 his father's commercial laundry was swamped.

“I can remember floating around in big tin buckets on the water,” he said. “Back then health issues were a real concern. If you ever touched money you had to wash your hands to get rid of the bugs.” Outside, Broc Kerr was waiting patiently to ferry MacKenzie back to dry ground.

In a school

Although he usually uses his rubber boat to take the kids fishing, Kerr found himself and his dinghy pressed into service helping MacKenzie — and trying to save the children's primary school.

“We got in there with some of the teachers to try to get stuff like computers and smartboards up a bit higher,” he said. “I don't know whether it's going to help. It's just relentless.” Milton Public's 400 students won't be back at school any time soon. The school was submerged and the first floor under threat. A basketball hoop, three metres high, poked out of the water covering the playground. A couple of local kids took it in turns to shoot hoops from their kayaks.

Across town in the upmarket riverside suburb of New Farm, residents have been frantically sandbagging their properties, with passersby offering whatever help they can. Such gestures of generosity and solidarity were being repeated all over Brisbane.

A few minutes' drive away at the Merthyr Lawn Bowls club, people were treating their anxiety with cold beers as they watched the water's progress.

The balcony was just a metre or two above the river, where empty boats and loose pontoons and jetties floated by. For the time being it was a spectator sport. But by morning, it would be something quite different.

Andrew and Lisa Joyce were enjoying a quiet cigarette and a drink on the side terrace of the club, a traditional weatherboard building. “There's nothing you can do really,” said Andrew, fatalistic about what may happen. “Everyone talks about sandbagging but the fact of the matter is if it gets to a point where it's over the sandbags, you can forget it.”— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011

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