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updated 1/16/2011 5:12:10 AM ET 2011-01-16T10:12:10

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.

Tertius Pickard  /  AP
New Farm residents Simon Stapleton, left, and brothers Benjamin, center, 10, and Damian Avenia, right, 14, clear away the mud and debris in front of a home in Brisbane, Australia.

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.

Video: Brisbane races to dig out of muddy mess

  1. Closed captioning of: Brisbane races to dig out of muddy mess

    >>> there now to australia where the people of brisbane are cleaning up after massive flooding. 26 people are dead, dozens more missing after week of flooding in the state of queensland . ian williams is in australia . he's been covering the story for us. good morning.

    >> reporter: good morning, alex. from the banks of the bloated brisbane river , the waterway responsible for turning much of this city into a muddy swamp. the water level has now fallen considerably. it still looks pretty bloated but this area i'm walking on now was under water just two days ago. as were the restaurants which line it. across the city, the big cleanup has now begun, an army of volunteers have turned out to help. the task is enormous. 30,000 homes, over 30 suburbs, were inundated. now, what people are returning to are the muddy shells of homes. a real mess with very few possessions that can be salvaged. most of this being put out by the side of the road waiting to be cleared away by the council. now, there's an urgency here because it's easier to get rid of the mud while it's wet. if you wait until it dries, it's much more difficult. it then becomes like concrete and far, far tougher to get rid of. further inland, the search continues for those still missing. the death toll is expected to rise in what the queensland premier has described as the worst natural disaster in the state's history. now, there is an enormous sense of relief here in queensland . the worst seems to be over. but for australia , the flooding hasn't finished. there are fresh reports of floods across southeast australia , and it seems more towns are being evacuated, more inundated. for australia , the crisis continues, although here in queensland , they are over the worst. alex?

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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