Australia floods victim Jordan Rice
Newspix Via Rex Usa
Jordan Rice, 13, who drowned with his mother after telling rescuers to save his brother Blake, 10, first.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/13/2011 11:20:05 PM ET 2011-01-14T04:20:05

Parts of Australia's third-largest city reopened Friday as deadly floodwaters that had swamped entire neighborhoods receded, revealing streets and thousands of homes covered in a thick layer of putrid sludge.

Garbage trucks moved through Brisbane's muddy streets and some residents dragged ruined furniture out of their homes as the massive cleanup began following one of Australia's worst natural disasters.

In towns upstream of Brisbane, soldiers picked their way through debris looking for more victims. Weeks of flooding across Australia's northeast have caused 25 deaths, and 55 people were still missing.

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"There is a lot of heartache and grief as people start to see for the first time what has happened to their homes and their streets," Queensland state Premier Anna Bligh said. "In some cases, we have street after street after street where every home has been inundated to the roof level."

The muddy waters swamped 30,000 homes and businesses in Brisbane. One man drowned Thursday when he was sucked into a storm drain as he tried to check on his father's home in an inundated Brisbane neighborhood. Officials expected to find more bodies farther upstream as they finally got access to hamlets struck by flash flooding on Monday.

Video: Resident recounts Australia flood destruction (on this page)

Most of the people still unaccounted for are from around Toowoomba, a city west of Brisbane in the Lockyer Valley where a sudden downpour caused a flash flood likened to an inland tsunami. Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson said Friday that officials may never be able to find everyone swept away by the raging torrent.

"We would certainly hope they would find them all," Atkinson said. "Regrettably, we could not exclude completely the possibility that some may never be found."

In the 300-resident community of Grantham, fears of finding more dead were rampant, Australia's Daily Telegraph reported, with officials suspecting that many could be trapped in a mass underwater grave created by a collapsed bridge.

"You'd have to think with 30-odd cars here, we're about to find some pretty unpleasant things," a police officer at the scene told the newspaper.

Dramatic video captured the power of the roaring water: A yacht ripped from its moorings rocketed down the river and suddenly sank after hitting a submerged object. Two men on board were thrown into the water and rescued by people on a small aluminum boat nearby.

Bligh warned the cleanup task would be of "postwar proportions." Water was still high in some areas Friday, but had pulled back dramatically in others to reveal mountains of muddy wreckage. Officials asked the Australian Defence Force for a minesweeper to search the mouth of the river for sunken debris.

Story: In Australia, floods bring dramatic tales of tragedy, rescue

Prime Minister Julia Gillard doubled the number of defense personnel involved in the recovery effort to 1,200, the largest deployment for a natural disaster since Cyclone Tracy destroyed the northern city of Darwin in 1974.

"There's a lot of dirt, a lot of filth, a lot of mess that needs to be cleaned up," Gillard said. "We've been through some very difficult days and there's still a lot to go through in the weeks and months that lie ahead."

About 57,000 homes were still without power across Queensland, and the military was delivering food, clothes and other supplies to areas still cut off by the waters.

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Health officials warned people to throw out anything that had touched the contaminated waters. Throughout Brisbane, a sickening odor of spoiled food and the river's muck wafted through the air.

"What the city has to prepare itself for ... is the unbearable stench," Bligh said. "The smell of it is just unspeakable."

Brisbane resident Kirsten Norquay was trying to figure out how to break the news to her hospitalized sister that everything she owns is now destroyed.

Video: Australian official: Flooding 'a surreal experience'

Norquay's sister, who is mentally ill, lives on the ground floor of their house and had no idea muddy floodwaters had ruined all of her belongings. She was due to be released from the hospital Friday, and Norquay feared she would have a breakdown when confronted by the devastating sight of the wreckage.

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"We have like a massive pile of all her life's belongings on the front grass," she said. "The only thing I saved was her photos."

Police officers were patrolling Brisbane's flooded streets around the clock. Six people have been charged with looting.

The flooding across Queensland has submerged dozens of towns — some three times — after several weeks of driving rain fell in the tropical northeast. Highways and rail lines have been washed away, and the disaster is shaping up to be Australia's costliest. Damage estimates were already at $5 billion before the floodwaters swamped Brisbane.

Heavy rains in the southern state of Victoria were also causing flooding there. Around 2,000 people from 400 homes across Victoria have been evacuated, State Emergency Service spokeswoman Jilly Charlwood said. In the state capital of Melbourne, Australia's second largest city, the Yarra River washed over its banks and onto an adjacent pedestrian walkway, she said.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Young flood victim tells rescuers to save brother instead

Photos: Australia's flood disaster continues

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  1. An aerial view of flood water inundating the Wimmera and Southern Mallee region in Victoria, Australia, Wednesday. Evacuations have been ordered in several western and north-western Victorian towns as they brace for the worst flooding in over 200 years. Record rainfall has inundated the region and causing several river water levels to rise. (Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Family members of the deceased mourn at the funeral of mother and son killed in last week's flash floods in Toowoomba Wednesday. Donna Maree Rice, 43, and Jordan Rice, 13, were swept away in the flash floods that struck the Lockyer Valley, taking the lives of 20 people. Jordon had told a rescuer to save his younger brother first. (Matt Roberts / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A Brisbane City Council worker is dwarfed by a mountain of household debris dumped next to the sports grounds at the Victoria Park Golf Club on Jan. 17 following devastating floods in the city. (Dave Hunt / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. People fill sand bags on Jan. 17 to try to stop their properties in Horsham from flooding, as the Wimmera River was expected to peak overnight, splitting the town in two. (Luis Enrique Ascui / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Local resident Monica Ditchmen (front) and Australian Governor-General Quentin Bryce sit together during an afternoon briefing at a school on Jan. 16 after the town of Grantham, Queensland was devastated by flooding (Eddie Safarik / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A man adds to a pile of debris on the edge of a street as he cleans a flood-damaged house after the Brisbane River receded in the suburb of Westend on Jan. 14. As Australia's third-largest city began cleaning up stinking mud and debris in flood-hit areas, whole suburbs remained submerged. (Tim Wimborne / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Children unable to gain access to a playground near the Wimmera river in Horsham, Victoria on Monday Jan. 17. Residents and emergency crews sandbagged properties and evacuations were ordered in the town in preparation for what was expected to be the worst flooding in over 200 years. Up to 20 towns in addition to those already flooded or under threat are expected to be hit by floodwaters in coming days (Richard Kendall / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Narelle Cole gently wipes silt from a 21-year-old photo of her daughter Kerrie, which she salvaged from the ruins of her inundated home in Ipswich on Jan. 14. (Torsten Blackwood / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Prime Minister Julia Gillard, right, speaks to 66-year-old local resident Kerry Yem, holding her dog Becky at a flood evacuation centre in Helidon, Queensland on Jan. 14. (Gary Ramage / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Tony Garcia surveys the remains of his father's flood-devastated 1963 Austin Morris in Ipswich on Jan. 14. (Torsten Blackwood / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Alice Richter-Ward cleans the mud from her Ryan Street home in the West End area of Brisbane on Jan. 14 after floodwaters inundated many parts of the city. As the waters receded, Brisbane residents began shoveling mud from homes, footpaths and roads. (Eddie Safarik / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. The mud covered friends of Andrew Taylor, second from right, pose around a destroyed piano as they help his family clean their house after floodwaters receded in the Brisbane suburb of Westend on Jan. 14. (Tim Wimborne / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A sales representative looks out from the entrance of a flooded wine wholesale store in Brisbane on Jan.13. Flood water in Australia's third-biggest city peaked below feared catastrophic levels on Thursday but Brisbane and other devastated regions faced years of rebuilding as a fresh flood threat loomed with a cyclonic storm building off the coast. (Tim Wimborne / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. The Brisbane River breaks its banks to flood residential areas west of Brisbane Jan. 13. (Tim Wimborne / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Friends pitch in to save local resident Paul O'Leary's home in the Bulimba suburb of Brisbane after flooding on January 13. Australia's third-largest city Brisbane was turned into a "war zone" on January 13 with whole suburbs under water and infrastructure smashed as the worst flood in decades hit 30,000 properties. (Eddie Safarik / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Flood affected residents are comforted at the QE-2 Flood Evacuation centre at Nathan in Brisbane, Australia, on Jan. 13. While the Brisbane River peaked one metre below the record 1974 peak of 5.45 metres, Brisbane residents face huge infrastructure issues as the cleanup starts. (Tony Phillips / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Oil swirls around vehicles submerged by flood waters in an industrial area of Brisbane on Jan. 13. (Tim Wimborne / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. An unidentified woman uses a hose to pump water out of an office in the city center of Brisbane, Australia on Jan. 13, 2011. Floodwaters washing through Australia's third-largest city crested Thursday just shy of record levels but high enough to submerge entire neighborhoods and cause damage one official likened to the aftermath of war. (Tertius Pickard / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A man looks at debris floating across a flooded street in the inner Brisbane suburb of West End, Jan. 12. Deadly floodwaters flowed onto the streets in Australia's northeastern state of Queensland after drenching rains that began in November sent swollen rivers spilling over their banks, inundating an area larger than France and Germany combined. (Giulio Saggin / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A vehicle is swept away in floodwaters in southeast Queensland, Jan. 12. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Anne Smart sits on the step of her flooded house after rainwaters the day before inundated the city of Ipswich. (Eddie Safarik / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. The Ipswich motorway is cut west of Brisbane. Brisbane and Ipswich were bracing for their worst-ever floods, with tens of thousands of homes at risk. (Dave Hunt / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Children wade through the flood waters in Brisbane's West End, Jan. 11. (Jennifer Hillhouse / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Flood waters swamp the shopping center in the city of Toowoomba on Jan. 11. (Nicole Alayne Hammermeister / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. The Brisbane River rises in central Brisbane on Jan. 11. Thousands of people were urged to leave the outskirts of Australia's third-largest city, Brisbane, as flood waters raced eastward. (Mick Tsikas / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. A passenger in a car waves for help as a flash flood sweeps across an intersection in Toowoomba, west of Brisbane, on Jan. 10. (Tomas Guerin / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Emergency workers rescue a man after he was stranded clinging to a tree on a flooded street in Toowoomba on Jan. 10. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. People stand on the rooftop of a house in Grantham, a township between Toowomba and Brisbane, on Jan. 10. (Reuters Tv / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. A damaged building stands in central Toowoomba after a flash flood ripped through the center of town on Jan. 10. (Dan Proud Photography / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. A man holds up a shirt on the roof of a house in Toowoomba on Jan. 10. (Reuters TV / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Bystanders look at damage caused by flash flooding in Toowoomba on Jan. 10. (Alicia Morrison / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. A resident of Maroochydore stands outside a store that has been sand bagged in preparation for flooding on Jan. 11. (Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Cars stand piled up after flood waters rushed through Toowoomba on Jan. 10. (Keira Lappin / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Food waters slam cars into a bridge on a street in Toowoomba on Jan. 10. (Anthony Farmer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Ipswich resident Warwick Roberts loads his car with free sandbags from emergency services amid heavy flooding in the area on Jan.11. (Eddie Safarik / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Debris and an overturned car float in central Toowoomba after floodwater ripped through the town center on Jan.10. (Dan Proud Photography / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. People watch from Kangaroo Point Cliffs as an emergency vessel recovers three lost boat pontoons on the Brisbane River on Jan.11. (Eddie Safarik / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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Map: Australia floods

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