Image: Flooded town
Brian Cassey  /  AP
Normanton, seen here Wednesday, is one of the northern Australian towns flooded after heavy rain.
updated 2/6/2009 10:31:58 AM ET 2009-02-06T15:31:58

Water levels began to drop slightly across the vast flooded region of northern Australia on Friday, but a forecast of more heavy rain will stymie recovery and cleanup effort.

Queensland state Premier Anna Bligh visited the hardest-hit area and pledged $325,000 to help northern towns recover, asking Australians to add their own contributions.

"The place is totally waterlogged, and we've got more very heavy rain appearing as I speak," Bligh told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio Friday after flying over the town of Ingham in a helicopter.

The Herbert River in Ingham dropped by 3.3 feet in the last 24 hours but could return to its Monday peak of 40 feet if the low pressure storm system off the coast dumps the expected 11.8 inches on the town this weekend.

While overflowing rivers and heavy rainstorms are normal during northern Australia's November-to-April tropical cyclone season, the Bureau of Meteorology has predicted above-normal monsoonal activity this season.

The government said that storms since late December have caused an estimated $90 million in damage.

More than 60 percent of Queensland is under water — 400,000 square miles, or twice the area of Spain. Ingham has been hardest hit, with 2,900 homes damaged or flooded in a weekend storm and hundreds of people evacuated.

"Having seen the flood devastation firsthand, I'd urge everyone to dig deep and lend a helping hand," Bligh said.

The main cities on northern Queensland's coast, Townsville and Cairns, were flooded in January storms and are still receiving daily rain. The main highways to Townsville were cut off by water this week and some northern towns have been isolated for weeks.

Military helicopters were preparing Friday to drop supplies to some areas, and emergency workers have converged on Ingham and other devastated areas to rescue stranded people and assist with cleanup efforts.

The wet weather has also disrupted the habitat of the state's wildlife. Kangaroos and wallabies have been stranded on pockets of dry land, birds are starving and officials have warned of crocodiles and snakes roaming flooded streets and yards.

Volunteer Lana Allcroft said her North Queensland Wildlife Care group was receiving more than 30 calls a day about stranded or injured animals.

She helped talk Townsville residents through the rescue of a sodden, injured wedge-tail eagle on Thursday, and tried to save a baby bandicoot rescued by a visiting official the same day, but it died of exhaustion.

Allcroft said birds and possums were starving because the floodwaters had washed away nectar and insects.

"We normally tell people to not feed wildlife, but now we are asking people to be mindful of them and leave food out for them," she said.

In stark contrast to the wet weather in the north, the south remains hot and dry. Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney have all sweltered through record-breaking heat waves in recent weeks, and weekend forecasts show temperatures reaching 97 to 115 degrees Fahrenheit in those state capitals.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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