MELBOURNE, Australia — Australian floods wreaked fresh havoc on rural communities in the south on Sunday, leaving a trail of destruction across four states, at least 17 dead and the prospect of reconstruction of historic proportions.
As tens of thousands of people in flood-stricken towns and cities in the north worked to clean out their homes and offices, heavy rains and floods meted out fresh disaster in southern Victoria state, the nation's second most populous.
Four major rivers in Victoria were in full flood, with 43 towns, 3,500 people and 1,400 properties affected. Hundreds of people have evacuated their homes, though no one has been killed so far in that state.
"They had the army in town. They were sandbagging on the west side. It was flowing fairly quickly," Paula Ryan, 40, who runs a mobile coffee van, told Reuters by telephone from Echuca on Sunday as it prepared to be swamped by the Campaspe River.
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'Words cannot express'
In Grantham, described as the epicenter of the flash flood in the eastern part of the country, 70 percent of the town remained cordoned off while searchers looked for bodies. The body of one woman was found Sunday in her wrecked house.
"People I hope will understand the pressure that the police are working under in these sorts of circumstances and be patient," Queensland state Premier Anna Bligh said. "They are working as hard as they can to be in a position to allow people back into Grantham as quickly as possible."
The wall of water that swept through the town left dozens of smashed cars wedged in trees or bogged in fields, tilted houses off foundations and piled up muddied belongings in the streets.
In nearby Murphys Creek, a church service at the local pub was held for survivors to grieve and remember their lost friends and family.
"Words really cannot express what the people of the Lockyer Valley are feeling at the moment," local parliament representative Scott Buchholz said after the service. They "are emotionally fragile yet display a bravery that is remarkable."
Billions in damage
The floods began in the northern mining state of Queensland last month and have caused billions of dollars in damage from broken infrastructure, lost commodity exports and the paralysis of the state capital, Brisbane, a city of two million.
Queensland has accounted for all deaths so far, though the floods have also hit New South Wales and Tasmania states.
One central bank board member has estimated that the floods, linked by some scientists to global warming and rising sea temperatures, could shave up to 1 percent off economic growth in the December and March quarters, equal to around $A 13 billion. ($12.9 billion).
Victoria's State Emergency Service described flooding in the north of that state as probably its worst since records began, with spokesman Hugo Zoller saying it would continue for days.
Gary Tonkin, 50, who runs an auto-electric business in the Victorian town of Charlton, said the Avoca River was running higher than in historic 1956 floods, inundating his business, his son's home and daughter-in-law's hair salon.
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"Three-quarters of the town is still under water. Some of those houses will probably have tobe bulldozed. The force of the water was just unbelievable. Every street that the river was running down was just like a torrent," he said.
"It has uprooted fences and a lot of peoples' house fences are washed away. The power came back on half an hour ago. The water is just brown and stinks."
Further north, though, floods waters continued to recede, mainly fine weather prevailed and Brisbane's port reopened in some good news for coal and grain exporters.
Coal mines are working to reopen, with water still needing to be pumped from their pits and rail lines to the coast to be repaired. In New South Wales, completion of the grain harvest has been delayed and crop quality severely downgraded.
Even in Queensland, where the cleanup is in full swing, some communities face new flood fears with the hamlet of Condamine largely evacuated for a second time.
Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said on Sunday the number of confirmed dead in the state had climbed to 17, but was likely to rise with more than a dozen people still missing.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.