National/World

Rising rivers swamp another Australian town

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Authorities told townspeople in Australia's southeast to flee homes with three days of supplies Wednesday as a surging river threatened another community in a flooding crisis that has devastated the country's mining industry.

Up to 1,500 homes in Kerang, in the north of Victoria state, could be affected if the Lodden River rises any further. The flooding in Victoria follows weeks of massive flooding in northeastern Queensland, which swamped two-thirds of the giant state, paralyzed several mines and left 30 people dead.

One of the victims, a 13-year-old boy, was buried alongside his mother Wednesday after becoming a national hero for insisting that rescuers first save his younger brother when their family car was gripped by a raging torrent of water.

Elsewhere in Queensland, authorities gave several of the state's waterlogged coal mines special exemptions to environmental rules so they could pump water out into their already-flooded surroundings. The mining industry estimates the flooding has cost 2.3 billion Australian dollars ($2.3 billion) in lost sales of coal, Australia's most lucrative export, causing a shortage that has pushed up global prices.

In Victoria, more than 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) south of the Bowen Basin which holds most of Queensland's coal mines, the Kerang levee breached at several points and townspeople were urged to head for a relief center on higher ground, the State Emergency Service (SES) said.

"You should ensure you have left your property immediately," the SES said in text message alerts sent about 5:20 a.m. to the town's 2,500 residents.

Officials later said the levee was expected to hold, despite water pouring through it at several points. Still, the threat to the town had not passed as water levels were expected to remain high for several days, said Tim Wiebusch, director of SES operations.

"This flood emergency is still far from over," he said. "The levee may come under further risk as there is a huge wall of water that is bearing down on Kerang."

Walls of water miles (kilometers) wide are surging across northern and western Victoria in the wake of record rainfall last week. Floodwaters have already left 1,000 households in Victoria's northwest without power, and thousands more homes are under threat of cuts as substations and low-lying power lines are submerged.

Energy supplier Powercor built earthen barriers around the substation in Kerang, in a floodplain expected to be inundated by six feet (two meters) of water.

Across Victoria state, more than 3,500 people have evacuated their homes, with 51 towns and 1,500 properties already affected by rising waters.

The victims in the Queensland flooding were mostly killed during a flash flood last week that hit towns west of the state capital, Brisbane.

Jordan Rice, 13, had insisted that rescuers save his younger brother Blake first, when the family's car became swamped. Blake was plucked to safety, while Jordan and his mother were swept to their deaths.

"The fire of my heart will continue to burn until it's my time to join them," Jordan's father, John Tyson, told more than 350 mourners who attended a funeral service in the flood-ravaged city of Toowoomba.

The government has said the Queensland floods could be the country's most expensive natural disaster ever, but has not yet released estimates of the costs. Some estimates already were at $5 billion before muddy brown waters swamped Brisbane last week.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague, in Australia for ministerial talks, commiserated with flood survivors at a barbecue in Brisbane.

"People in Britain were watching this hour by hour, minute by minute, hoping and praying for you," Hague said. "It's hard to imagine the volume of water that came up from the peaceful looking river over there."

Twenty of Queensland's coal mines were given special permits Wednesday to pump floodwater from their sites and another 18 applications were under consideration, said Mike Birchley, the acting assistant director general of Queensland's Department of Environment and Resource Management.

Birchley said the permits carry conditions aimed at minimizing environmental damage from the extra water flows into surrounding creeks and rivers.

"The last thing the people of Queensland need while they are still experiencing elevated water levels in their communities is further risks to their local waterways," Birchley said in a statement.

Many of the state's 57 coal mines were working around the clock to remove floodwater and secure access to rail transport after tracks and bridges were washed away, said Michael Roche, chief executive of the state miners' association Queensland Resources Council.

(Copyright ©2014 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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