Brisbane – Residents began a long wait Thursday for floodwaters to subside and reveal the extent of devastation to Australia’s third-largest city, while upstream soldiers picked their way through the debris of washed-away towns looking for more victims from one of the country’s worst natural disasters.
The waters left behind tractor-trailers snapped in half, concrete slabs where houses used to be and a car hanging from a tree.
The slow-motion inundation of Brisbane overnight — played out live on television before a nation transfixed — was a critical moment in flooding that has built for weeks as rain fell incessantly across Australia’s tropical northeast.
The emergency is not over, but Brisbane’s escape from what forecasters had predicted would be a flood worse than one that laid waste to much of the city 37 years ago triggered relief nationwide.
The death toll stood at 25, including a 24-year-old man who drowned Thursday when he was sucked into a storm drain as he tried to check on his father’s home in a swamped Brisbane neighborhood. Officials said they expect to find more bodies farther upstream as they finally got access to hamlets struck by flash flooding on Monday.
The deadly floodwaters began to recede Thursday after cresting about three feet (one meter) below the depth of 1974 floods that swept through Brisbane and set a benchmark for disaster. Still, 30,000 homes and business were swamped — many all the way up to their terra-cotta roof tiles. Skyscrapers stood empty as downtown closed for a for a second day, and thousands remained huddled in evacuation centers or with friends and family on higher ground.
“Queensland is reeling this morning from the worst natural disaster in our history and possibly in the history of our nation,” a visibly shaken state Premier Anna Bligh told reporters. “We’ve seen three-quarters of our state having experienced the devastation of raging floodwaters and we now face a reconstruction task of postwar proportions.”
The flooding across Queensland has submerged dozens of towns — some three times — and left an area the size of Germany and France combined under water. Highways and rail lines have been washed away in the disaster, which is shaping up to be Australia’s costliest. Damage estimates were already at $5 billion before the floodwaters swamped Brisbane.
At least 61 people are still missing, most of them from around Toowoomba, a city west of Brisbane that saw massive flash floods on Monday. Fourteen died in that flood alone, including two whose bodies were found on Thursday. Deputy Police Commissioner Ian Stewart warned that number was likely to rise as search and rescue teams are able to move into more devastated areas.
“We’ve got to brace ourselves for more bad news,” Stewart said.
With decent access to the region between Brisbane and Toowoomba for the first time, more than 200 police and soldiers fanned out across the stricken Lockyer Valley in buses, helicopters and amphibious military vehicles on Thursday.
At Postmans Ridge, about 55 miles (90 kilometers) west of Brisbane, about two dozen soldiers wearing jungle camouflage uniforms and police in dark coveralls picked their way methodically through large trees flattened along a creek banks and a floodplain strewn with debris. Tractor-trailers lay broken in two, boats were crushed and the body of a horse was wedged between a downed tree and the sodden ground.
Nearby, Barry and Catherine Bull boiled potatoes and cooked rump steak given to them by a neighbor over a gas-fired camp stove set up outside their house, built of brick and one of few left standing around them. All that remains of the neighbor’s wood-framed house is the concrete slab. A car was suspended in the sagging branches of a tree.
They fear the elderly woman across the street is one of the people for whom the soldiers are searching.
“One of the neighbors went to get her, got her out of the house, but she went back for the dog,” Catherine Bull said. “That was the last anyone saw of her. If you’d seen the torrent and the way the water was moving, I think you know the rest.”
Officials told evacuated Brisbane residents it could be days before it was safe to return to inundated neighborhoods, though no bans were in place preventing people from surveying the damage. Some homes would never be habitable again.
Mayor Campbell Newman said 11,900 homes and 2,500 businesses had been completely inundated, with another 14,700 houses and 2,500 businesses at least partially covered in water.
Roads were flooded, railway lines were cut and sewage spilled into the floodwaters. People moved about in kayaks, rowboats and even on surfboards.
Police officers were patrolling Brisbane’s flooded streets around the clock. Three men were charged with looting after police said they tried to steal dinghies from the swollen river.
Despite the devastation, many in Brisbane were thankful the river running through the city had spared them the worst of its fury.
Lisa Sully, who lives in the nearby suburb of Sherwood, did have some water in her home — but she still felt lucky on Thursday.
“I can handle this,” she said. “Mentally, I was prepared for worse.”
The death toll has shocked Australians, no strangers to deadly natural disasters such as the wildfires that killed 173 in a single day two years ago.
Though the full extent of the damage won’t be known until the water is gone, even before Brisbane was threatened, Bligh estimated a cleanup and rebuilding to total about $5 billion.
Add to that, the damage to economy: Queensland’s coal industry has virtually shut down, costing millions in deferred exports and sending global prices higher. Vegetables, fruit and sugarcane crops in the rich agricultural region have been wiped out, and prices are due to skyrocket as a result.