Image: Residents use boats in floodedcity of Rockhampton
Torsten Blackwood  /  AFP - Getty Images
Residents use boats to travel down the road Wednesday after the swollen Fitzroy River broke its banks and flooded the city of Rockhampton, Australia.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/5/2011 4:03:16 PM ET 2011-01-05T21:03:16

Australia put an army general in charge of flood recovery Wednesday after weeks of heavy rains deluged the country's coal-producing northeast, crippling the area's economy and sending out reverberations felt in coal markets around the world.

Floodwaters have forced most of Queensland state's coal mines — which fuel Asia's steel mills — to shut and some may not restart production for months, ministers said at an emergency Cabinet meeting in Brisbane, the state capital.

After the meeting, Queensland Premier Anna Bligh announced that Maj. Gen. Mick Slater would lead the recovery effort of floods that have affected 200,000 people and are estimated to cost billions of dollars.

"This is a disaster of an unprecedented scale and it will require an unparalleled rebuilding effort," Bligh told reporters.

But until the waters dry up, it won't be clear what the cost of the flooding will be, Bligh warned.

"If you count everything from the cost to homes, the home rebuilding effort, public infrastructure rebuilding effort and economic loss, I think we're well above $5 billion territory," she said.

The worst flooding in decades has affected an area the size of Germany and France, left towns virtual islands in a muddy inland sea, devastated crops, cut major rail and road links to coal ports, slashed exports and forced up world coal prices.

Around 1,200 homes in Queensland have been inundated, with another 10,700 suffering some damage, Bligh said Wednesday. Some 22 towns have been cut off.

"What I'm seeing in every community I visit is heartbreak, devastation," Bligh said.

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Bligh told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio that the water had caused "catastrophic" damage to Queensland's transport systems. The state is the world's biggest exporter of coal used in steel-making.

"Queensland is a very big state. It relies on the lifelines of its transport system, and those transport systems in some cases are facing catastrophic damage," Bligh said.

And she stressed the economic effects would not be restricted to Queensland.

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"Seventy-five per cent of our mines are currently not operating because of this flood, so that's a massive impact on the international markets and the international manufacture of steel," Bligh told local television.

Analysts have forecast that the flood disaster will cut just over $5 billion off Australia's annual output of $1.3 trillion.

Wettest year on record
The floods have been caused by a "La Nina" weather pattern, which produces monsoonal rains over the western Pacific and Southeast Asia.

The La Nina saw Australia record its third wettest year on record in 2010 and is expected to last another three months, the nation's weather bureau said on Wednesday.

Australia's Bureau of Meteorology reported that Queensland's "exceptional" weather had seen the state's average rainfall rise to nearly double that of a normal year, making it the wettest year on record, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.

Every month from August to December ranked in the respective top 10s of monthly rainfall, the newspaper added.

Video: Australia residents brace for more flooding (on this page)

Residents in flooded towns worked desperately to build sandbag levees on Wednesday in the hope of holding back the rising waters.

In the cattle town of Rockhampton, where the Fitzroy River has already swamped 200 homes and 100 businesses, a rise of just 8 inches in floodwaters would inundate another 400 homes and lap at the front door of a further 4,000 properties.

"Let's hope we dodge the bullet," Queensland state disaster coordinator Ian Stewart said. "Every centimeter counts."

Rockhampton's mayor Brad Carter said the community appeared to have been spared any further damage. "It looks like it may have stabilized," Carter said.

However, he warned it would be some time before people could return. "It's going to be two weeks before people...are able to move back into their homes," Carter said.

Despite the devastation, Carter said the residents of Rockhampton were keeping their spirits up.

"We have a very resilient community," Carter said. "They're holding up very well. Many of the people that live in these low-lying areas have been through these flooding events before."

'A lot of snakes'
Rockhampton residents have also reported seeing higher than usual numbers of snakes, Carter said.

Saltwater crocodiles were another worry for people entering floodwaters, as the predators have been spotted from time to time in the Fitzroy River, he added.

"There's a lot of snakes — and I mean a lot," Rockhampton resident Shane Muirhead told Australian Broadcasting Corp. "Like, every hundred yards you will see a snake, and they're just everywhere."

Video: Crocs, snakes infest Australian floodwaters (on this page)

Residents in the town of St George have built dirt moats to try and stop the floodwaters reaching their homes, but authorities fear 80 percent of the small town could be be swamped.

"It's started to rain here again. We could get a flood on top of our flood," said Barnaby Joyce, a National party senator who lives in St George.

In other parts of the state, some flooded communities were beginning to dry out.

In the town of Theodore, which evacuated all 300 residents last week, specialists arrived in helicopters on Wednesday to check the safety of power, water and sewage plants, county Mayor John Hooper said.

Officials were still trying to determine when it would be safe to allow residents to return.

In the southern Queensland town of St George, nursing home residents evacuated and residents toiled in the rain to build levee banks ahead of floodwaters expected to peak next week.

The town was devastated in March by another flood, and residents were worried the latest onslaught of water would cause even more damage.

"People see the floodwaters coming down and say, 'That's my life about to be covered in silt again,'" Senator Barnaby Joyce, a St George resident, told Australia's Sky News. "People are thinking ... we've got no money, no crop, we've really got no future."

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Mines, rail lines flooded
Macarthur Coal said on Wednesday it had resumed transporting coal by rail to Dalrymple Bay Coal Terminal this week, but force majeure, which releases companies from contractual obligations, remained in place and future coal trains would depend on coal availability.

"Once the pits are free of water, we'll have more coal exposed that can be processed and transported," said Nicole Hollows, Macarthur's managing director. "It is not possible to predict when we will return to a steady state of mining as that largely depends on any future rain."

Wesfarmers is also resuming output at its Curragh mine in the Bowen Basin, but retained its declaration of force majeure.

A spokesman for Dalrymple port warned that unless mine companies resume production in the nation's biggest coal region soon, coal export shipments could again be cut.

Some rail lines carrying coal from inland mines expected to stay partially underwater for another week.

"These mine areas are going to be affected for months to come," said Jess Carey, a flood forecaster for the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

"In terms of river levels, they might recede by next week but these big mining establishments are obviously going to feel the affects for months to come," said Carey.

Australia accounts for more than half of global coking coal exports, which are vital to steelmakers, especially in Asian countries such as booming China.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Australians cope with flood, clean-up

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