SYDNEY // An "inland instant tsunami" smashed through several Queensland towns, killing at least nine people, as the flooding crisis escalated dramatically. The state capital, Brisbane, is also facing its worst inundation for more than a century.
Fifty-nine people were missing last night in Toowoomba, 125km west of Brisbane, after a wall of water swept through the rural town and neighbouring communities, scooping up cars and pedestrians. The nine confirmed fatalities include at least four children, and "grave concerns" are held for 15 of those still unaccounted for, said the state premier, Anna Bligh.
Although there had been warnings of flash floods, Toowoomba and the nearby Lockyer Valley region were completely unprepared for the lethal events of Monday.
But as residents surveyed the destruction in disbelief yesterday, attention was already turning to Brisbane, where forecasters predicted that devastating floods would hit over the next two days.
The warning prompted an exodus from the city centre, with shops closing and office workers fleeing. Thousands of people in low-lying suburbs were urged to move to higher ground, as the Lord Mayor, Campbell Newman, warned of a disaster if the Brisbane River peaked as expected tomorrow. About 6,500 homes and businesses were expected to be swamped.
Brisbane's last major flood was in 1974, after which the Wivanhoe Dam was built to protect the city. But the Wivanhoe is already well over capacity following weeks of heavy rain, and when the torrent of water from Toowomba reaches the coast, dam managers will be forced to release it into the Brisbane River. "We are in uncharted territory," Mr Newman said.
Queenslanders have been battling the floods for weeks, as river after swollen river bursts its banks, but until Monday the waters were rising slowly, giving people time to evacuate. What happened in Toowoomba - where houses were lifted off their foundations and locals clung for life to trees and telegraph poles - has changed the tenor of the crisis.
"This has been a terrible day, a terrible day," said the Queensland police commissioner, Bob Atkinson, who described what struck Toowoomba as "an inland instant tsunami".
A clearly shaken Ms Bligh said the death toll would rise "potentially quite dramatically", and she revealed that whole families were among the missing.
With the search and rescue effort hampered by yet more atrocious weather, she said Queensland was "facing our darkest hour of the last fortnight", adding: "Mother Nature has delivered something terrible in the last 48 hours, but there's more to go."
Ms Bligh claimed that the "incredibly intense" deluge that preceded Toowoomba's flash floods - an estimated 150 millimetres of rain fell in half an hour - could not have been predicted. Brisbane, a city of two million, has at least had more warning of the flooding heading its way - although until yesterday its impact was expected to be minor.
Now the biggest floods since 1893 are forecast. Some 3,500 people are expected to have to abandon their homes. An evacuation centre was set up yesterday, and military helicopters were on standby at a local base. Supermarkets in Brisbane, Australia's third-largest city, reported panic buying.
Mr Newman said: "The situation is very serious. Today is very significant, tomorrow is bad, and Thursday is going to be devastating for the residents and businesses affected."
In 1974 thousands of homes were flooded and 14 people died when the Brisbane River flooded. Yesterday, the river was already lapping at boardwalks and waterside buildings after breaking its banks in numerous places. Boats, and even a ferry pontoon, were ripped from their moorings.
A total of 18 people have died in Queensland's floods; the latest casualties include a mother and two children whose car was swept away. In the Toowoomba area, 40 people were pulled to safety from rooftops. Sixty residents who sought refuge in a primary school in the township of Grantham remained huddled there without power yesterday, waiting to be rescued.
The prime minister, Julia Gillard, said she was "absolutely shocked" by television footage of the events. "The power of nature can still be a truly frightening power, and we've seen that on display in this country."
Three-quarters of Queensland has now been declared a disaster zone, with the cost of the floods - in economic losses, and damaged infrastructure - estimated at $6 billion Australian dollars (Dh21.7bn).
The state supplies a substantial portion of the world's coking coal, but the industry is at a virtual standstill, as is agricultural production.
The floods have been blamed on an unusually strong La Nina weather pattern in the Pacific Ocean.