BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA //The first thing Jan Dalton found outside her Brisbane home yesterday was an old birthday card from her parents floating in the muddy water. "I looked at it and thought it was like Mum and Dad saying it's all going to be OK."
Ms Dalton was one of thousands of people who returned home with trepidation to inspect the damage wrought by the city's worst floods in nearly four decades. Although the Brisbane River did not reach the disastrous peak predicted, it left thousands of houses submerged and the city with a mammoth clean-up task.
The Lord Mayor, Campbell Newman, warned that it could take up to two years to rebuild the Queensland capital. He urged Brisbanites to rally round, saying: "Anyone with a bulldozer, front-end loader or dump truck, we want to hear from you. We will send you in when the water goes down to clear local streets."
As the brown lakes obscuring dozens of Brisbane suburbs began to shrink yesterday, leaving behind mud, debris and a stench, the challenge of reconstructing lives, homes and communities was just starting. For flood victims, that meant taking stock and salvaging what they could of their pre-flood existence.
Ms Dalton had moved most of her belongings to her daughter's house, but in the rush to get out she left a box in her garage. It contained treasured possessions: children's books, family mementoes, personal papers. They were what she found floating down the street.
Although her home still contained a metre of water, she was stoical.
"There are so many people that are worse off," she said. "But the first time you see it, it's so horrible. I never thought something like this would happen to me. It just feels surreal. I feel like I'm on a movie set rather than this is my life."
The death toll from the floods that hit Brisbane and smaller communities to the west this week rose to 15 yesterday, when a 24-year-old man was swept into a stormwater drain while inspecting his father's Brisbane homes and two more bodies were found in towns in the Lockyer Valley. At least 61 people were still missing last night.
The state premier, Anna Bligh, wept at a press conference as she described flying over the city and seeing only rooftops protruding from the murky waters. "Underneath every single one of those rooftops is a family," she said. "Underneath every single one of those rooftops is a horror story. I think it's going to take some days for it to totally sink in, in Brisbane, what's happened to our city."
Dozens of those stories were playing out in once picturesque Fig Tree Pocket, about six miles from Brisbane city centre. The riverside suburb was badly hit, with many houses under water.
Marie Gough returned to dry land upset after hitching a lift in a boat to visit her home of 23 years. "It was awful," she said. "The water's been right up to my roof. I felt sick when I first saw it. [But] I guess it's better to know. Now I know it's going to be six months or more before I can go home."
Majbritt Jansan was angry. "There was no warning - that's what gets me the most," she said. "Friends in other areas got e-mails and text messages. We had no idea it was coming. Had we known earlier, we could all have been way out of here. Now my house is a write-off. But I'm going to rebuild, for my kids' sake. The fact is, we've just got to get on with it and start again. And you know what - we've no longer got what we used to have, but we're alive and we've got each other, and that's priceless."
While Brisbane has weathered its worst soaking since 1974, two-thirds of Queensland remains a disaster zone. And the disaster is far from over. Authorities warned yesterday that with another two months of the wet season to go and the ground soaked, further severe flooding is possible.
Ms Bligh told her citizens yesterday that the state faced "a reconstruction task of post-war proportions". But she said she was sure they would rise to the task. "We're the people that they breed tough, north of the [New South Wales] border," she declared. "We're the ones that they knock down and we get up again."