Rockhampton’s 75,000 residents rejoiced on Wednesday when the swollen Fitzroy River looked set to peak below the catastrophic level of 9.4 metres that officials said would inundate 400 more homes and complete the isolation of the flood-ravaged city.
Rockhampton, on Australia’s east coast, is the current focus of the floods in Queensland that have shut 40 coal mines, ruined cash crops and damaged the wheat harvest.
“If we dodge the bullet, if it doesn’t go up to 9.4, whilst we’ve still got a lot of housing involved, it’ll mean that the highway will stay open to the north and it’ll give us a greater capacity to deal with this event,” deputy commissioner of police Ian Stewart said.
Estimates of the damage and lost production from Queensland’s worst floods in 50 years go as high as 9 billion Australian dollars (9 billion US dollars).
Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said when appointing Major General Mick Slater the head of a flood recovery task force that the repair cost would be at least 5 billion Australian dollars.
She said 1,200 homes had been swamped and 10,700 had flood damage, and that 4,000 people were being housed in 17 evacuation centres in 10 Queensland towns.
“Until the waters recede nobody knows what the price tag is,” she said. “If we need additional resources we have offers from other nations ... if we need it we’ll put our hand up.” Australia has received offers of assistance from the US government.
Losses from flooding covering an area the size of France and Germany combined are being felt in international commodity markets.
The waterlogging of farms and coal pits has lifted the prices of grains and the coking coal used in steelmaking. There is likely to be a knock-on effect on food and metals prices around the globe.
The floods have brought destruction on a shocking scale, with 22 towns inundated and some in line for a second soaking if the forecast for more rain later this week is correct.
“What I’m seeing in every community I visit is heartbreak,” Bligh said. “We’ve got private homes, private businesses, all devastated, and they’ll have to be rebuilt.” The Defence Force has organized an airlift of food, drinking water and medical supplies and a fleet of military helicopters is on standby if the Bruce Highway is severed and all roads to Rockhampton cut off.
The airport was knocked out five days ago and may be awash for three weeks.
Rockhampton Mayor Brad Carter said 117 people slept in an evacuation centre set up inside a local university, and around 500 were staying with relatives or friends on higher ground.
In St George, a town of 2,500 people 500 kilometres west of Brisbane, some houses yet to be repaired after the Balonne-Condamine River burst its banks in March are being sandbagged to prevent a second inundation.
“People see the floodwaters coming down and say, ‘That’s my life about to be covered in silt again,’” said Barnaby Joyce, the local member of parliament. “People are thinking -- we’ve got no money, no crop, we’ve really got no future.”