Queensland floods: Rockhampton floodwaters 'peak'

The BBC's Nick Bryant reports from a helicopter above Rockhampton

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Floodwaters in the Australian city of Rockhampton appear to have peaked at a lower level than previously feared.

The Fitzroy River which flows through the city seems to have levelled off at 9.2m (30ft) rather than 9.4m, but forecasters are warning of more rain.

Queensland is in the grip of a flood crisis, with some 40 communities affected and 1,200 homes submerged.

A task force has been created to lead recovery efforts. Officials say the flood bill could exceed A$5bn (£3bn).

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh has appointed Maj Gen Mick Slater to head the task force.

At the scene

Almost completely encircled by muddy floodwaters, Rockhampton risked being entirely cut off if those rose much further, but they peaked slightly lower than the authorities had feared, enough to keep the one highway that's open from being inundated.

Many of the city's low-lying suburbs will remain flooded for more than a week, but a local official said the city as a whole had "dodged the bullet".

Now attention is shifting to the economic impact of the flooding on Australia's two most vital sectors, mining and agriculture.

Operations at some 40 mines have been interrupted and many of the railway lines that transport coal to the ports have been severed. Queensland is responsible for more than half of the country's coal exports.

With farms flooded and crops ruined, the price of fresh fruit and vegetables is also forecast to rise, by as much as 50%.

State Premier Anna Bligh predicted this disaster could have a global impact, partly because Queensland supplies half of the world's coking coal for steel manufacturing. At least one senior economist here thinks this could be Australia's most costly natural disaster, largely because of the impact on exports.

With natural disasters declared across an area of a million square kilometres, Ms Bligh said the scale of the crisis was unprecedented and would require an unparalleled rebuilding effort.

"This is a very serious job ahead of us recovering from a disaster like this. Rebuilding regional Queensland will be a marathon, not a sprint," she said.

The deluge has ruined crops, closed most of the state's coal mines and caused "catastrophic" damage to Queensland's transport systems, Ms Bligh told Australian broadcaster ABC.

Snakes

In Rockhampton, the authorities have been warning for days that river waters would peak on Wednesday at a height of 9.4m.

But the Australian weather bureau said the Fitzroy River had stayed around 9.2m and slight drops in height would be seen from Thursday.

Rockhampton Mayor Brad Carter welcomed the news, saying "it looks like it may have stabilised".

The difference of 0.2m means some 400 homes in Rockhampton will be spared severe flood damage, and the only road into the city remains open.

However, the authorities said it was still too early to say the worst was over, with the weather bureau issuing a severe weather warning for flood-affected areas in the Fitzroy catchment.

The city's airport is closed. Supplies are currently being flown by military cargo plane to a town north of Rockhampton and taken on by road or barge.

Graphic showing the history of Rockhampton floods

Many of the city's historic buildings are being protected by piles of sandbags.

Mr Carter said residents had reported seeing snakes moving through the water looking for dry ground, and some saltwater crocodiles had also been spotted in the Fitzroy River.

"We do not think they are a risk to public safety if people keep out of the waters, but if people do enter the waters, their safety cannot be guaranteed," he told The Australian newspaper.

More than a week of heavy rain has created a huge inland sea across Queensland which is now draining towards the ocean along the state's river systems, leaving chaos in its wake.

Officials have said the flooded area is the size of France and Germany combined and 200,000 people have been affected. Ten deaths have been blamed on the floods since tropical storms began at the end of November.

South of Rockhampton, floodwaters are threatening St George where officials predict 80% of the town could be inundated next week.

Meteorologists have issued a severe thunderstorm warning for southern areas, saying "very heavy rainfall, flash flooding" were likely, with St George among the locations that could be affected.

Map showing flood-hit areas

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