More than 200,000 people have been affected by relentless flooding in northeast Australia, with the flood zone now stretching over an area bigger than France and Germany combined, officials said Friday.
Thousands of homes and businesses across Queensland state have been inundated with water after days of pounding rain caused swollen rivers to overflow. The entire population of two towns was forced to evacuate as water swamped their communities, cutting off roads and devastating crops.
Heavy rains and flooding in northeast Australia is common during the southern hemisphere summer, but the scope of the damage from the recent downpours is extremely unusual, Queensland state Premier Anna Bligh said.
"This is without a doubt a tragedy on an unprecedented scale," Bligh told Australian Broadcasting Corp. "We now have 22 towns or cities that are either substantially flooded or isolated because the roads have been cut off to them. That represents some 200,000 people spanning an area that's bigger than the size of France and Germany combined."
Thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes this week. In the central Queensland town of Emerald, around 1,000 people were evacuated in the last 24 hours.
The town was facing the prospect of food shortages, power outages and sewage-contaminated floodwaters, county mayor Peter Maguire said. Three evacuation centers have been set up to help displaced residents.
Weather across most of the state was drier on Friday, but river levels were still rising in some areas as high waters worked their way toward the ocean. Bligh warned that drenched communities could be stuck under water for more than a week, and clean up efforts were expected to cost billions of dollars.
City will be cut off
Rockhampton, a city near Queensland's coast, was bracing for a deluge of river water heading its way. Roads and railway lines were expected to be cut off by Saturday, and the city's airport planned to shut down over the weekend.
Officials were evacuating residents on Friday, starting with the elderly and those living in low-lying areas. Gary Boyer, regional manager of supermarket chain Woolworths, said the company was sending 43 trucks full of supplies into Rockhampton on Friday.
Queensland launched a disaster relief fund for flood victims with 1 million Australian dollars ($1 million) in state money. Prime Minister Julia Gillard pledged to match that amount with federal funds.
Gillard was touring flooded communities on Friday and planned to stop in Rockhampton later in the day.
Earlier, she toured the city of Bundaberg, where about 60 people have taken shelter at an evacuation center.
Resident Sandy Kiddle told Gillard she lost cherished items after floodwaters surged through her house, and may not be able to return home for a week.
"It was just a sea of water and I thought the beach would never come to our house," she told Gillard, who gave her a hug.