AFP - Getty Images
Peter Foreman checks a friend's house in the Gippsland region of Victoria, Australia, on Friday.
updated 6/29/2007 9:57:05 AM ET 2007-06-29T13:57:05

The worst floods in decades swept across parts of Australia's drought-parched southeast Friday, engulfing farms and towns and forcing hundreds of people to abandon homes and businesses.

Several rivers in the Gippsland region of southeastern Victoria state north of Melbourne burst their banks late Thursday after two days of heavy rain following months of severe drought.

Police helicopters airlifted about 100 people to safety from several flooded towns Thursday, and Victoria's Premier Steve Bracks warned residents downstream to brace for an onslaught Friday.

"We do expect that it could get worse, and there is a chance of it getting worse in the next 24 hours as that body of water comes forward," Bracks said.

The floods are the worst the state has seen in 37 years, Bracks said, and come as an added blow to farming communities already crippled by the country's worst drought on record and severe wildfires that tore through the state in January.

Television footage showed a mile-wide river of muddy floodwater engulfing homes, barns and farmland, leaving herds of cattle stranded in ankle-deep swamps.

Police told people in the coastal resort city of Lakes Entrance to move to higher ground amid fears that an unusually high tide expected late Friday could prevent the floodwaters from emptying into sea.

"The high tide is going to hold these waters in. They will have no chance to be released into the ocean and this could seriously affect a number of properties over a substantial area," emergency services spokesman Allan Briggs said.

More than 90 people were evacuated from the dairy farming town of Newry, around 120 miles northeast of Melbourne, when the swollen Macalister River inundated the town late Thursday.

Geoff Ponsford, a farmer from nearby Tinamba, had been wading in water up to his armpits to check on his neighbors when he realized he needed to evacuate and called police for a helicopter airlift.

"There was hardly a dry place anywhere," he told The Age newspaper. "I was frozen. The lowest water was up to my knees."

Hundreds of displaced residents were forced to sleep in makeshift relief shelters Thursday, while the state and federal government have promised monetary relief to help rebuild homes.

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