A fourth person has died in flood-affected areas on Australia’s east coast as communities across the states of New South Wales and Queensland count the cost of a second major flood disaster in as many years.
A three-year-old boy – the youngest victim – died from injuries sustained when a tree fell on him and his mother as they were looking at rising floodwaters in Brisbane on Monday morning. The child’s 34-year-old mother, who is pregnant, remained in hospital with several broken bones and head injuries.
Across two states, tens of thousands of people have been isolated by rising floodwaters. In Queensland the focus remained on the city of Bundaberg, 190 miles (300km) north of Brisbane and home to 100,000 people.
Bundaberg’s Burnett river peaked on Tuesday, surging into 2,000 homes and about 200 businesses. Hundreds of residents, including 131 patients from the Bundaberg hospital, had earlier been airlifted to safety as the waters moving at 40 miles an hour threatened to rip houses from their foundations. One house was reported to have been swept away.
“This is the centre of the floods crisis here in Queensland,” said the state’s premier, Campbell Newman, who visited the city.
“I’ve seen the city from the air, I’ve seen perhaps even more extraordinary sights than we saw two years ago in south-east Queensland,” he said, referring to the devastating floods of 2011 in which an area the size of France and Germany combined was inundated.
In the state’s capital, Brisbane, home to more than 2 million people, the Brisbane river peaked on Tuesday at below predicted heights and well below the levels of 2011. Boats and pontoons that had been ripped from their moorings floated towards the river mouth but residential homes were largely spared.
The city faces another problem: a shortage of clean water. The river is four times as muddy as it was in the 2011 floods, according to Newman. “The effect of that is to cause the treatment plants to have to shut down,” he said.
Residents have been asked to restrict water use to cooking, drinking and showering as the city will need to survive for the next couple of days on about half of its usual treated water supply.
Further south in the state of New South Wales at the city of Grafton, 370 miles north of Sydney, the Clarence river peaked at record levels and nearly 40cm above its previous highest level in the 1890s.
“This is the biggest flood in the history of Grafton,” said the state premier, Barry O’Farrell, as he praised the work of volunteer emergency services who moved more than 1000 people out of danger.
More than 40,000 people have been isolated by floodwaters in northern New South Wales as a result of the torrential rain from the remains of ex-tropical cyclone Oswald, which formed at the top of northern Australia last week. In many towns the next few days will be about cleaning up and getting in supplies, but other communities further downstream towards Sydney will anxiously wait for the rivers that run through them to reach their flood peaks.
Sydney escaped the worst of the bad weather but huge waves were recorded across many of the city’s beaches and swells of up to eight metres out to sea.
The wet weather follows a summer of unprecedented heat across large parts of Australia. Just over a week ago emergency services were issuing fire warnings and battling many blazes across huge areas. Sydney experienced its hottest day on record in January, peaking at 46.5C (115.7F). Parts of the southern state of Victoria are still on bushfire alert.
Australia’s climate commission says global warming is likely to increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. But asked whether people on Australia’s east coast should expect this, the New South Wales premier dismissed the question.
“If the question is about climate change go and ask me another day,” Barry O’Farrell said.
“Let’s not turn this near-disaster, this episode that has damaged so many properties and other things, into some politically correct debate about climate change. Give me a break.”
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