Thousands stranded in continuing Aussie floods

BETWEEN EXTREMES::State Emergency Services Minister Steve Whan called it a ‘harsh blow’ for farmers who had only recently emerged from 10 difficult years of drought

AFP, SYDNEY

Tue, Dec 07, 2010 - Page 5

Thousands of Australians were stranded and others evacuated yesterday as floodwaters surged through towns across a swathe of New South Wales, said officials, who were bracing for more rain.

Parts of the state’s southeast were declared natural disaster areas as swollen rivers spilled into the streets and water levels continued to rise, forcing the closure of major highways, state Premier Kristina Keneally said.

“We are anticipating that there may be additional flooding and the water may still be rising here in Wagga — and as we see over the next few days those floodwaters move westward,” Keneally told reporters from the badly hit inland town.

About 4,000 people were isolated and 1,500 had been evacuated, according to the State Emergency Service (SES).

A total of 34 New South Wales regions were now natural disaster zones, Keneally said, with 17 declarations issued in the past few days.

Wagga mayor Wayne Geale said it was the worst flooding he had seen since a major downpour in 1974.

“This is getting up to a height of 74, the big floods in 74, [when] it actually nearly breached the levee banks,” Geale told ABC radio.

“But it’s not — I think it’s going to fall just short of that this time,” he said.

State Emergency Services Minister Steve Whan said that with further rain expected later in the week, authorities would keep a close watch on the situation.

“In Wagga the levee is also looking very good but there are a lot of people that are isolated and it will be some days before at lot of the links are reopened,” he said.

About 170 soldiers joined -hundreds of SES volunteers in sandbagging and rescue efforts. Whan urged residents not to enter floodwaters, following the death of an elderly man whose car was swept away in the surge further north. There have been 68 rescues, the SES reported.

Though major levees have so far held and rivers failed to reach their forecast peaks, officials warned that the worst was yet to come, with fresh rains due in already sodden areas.

There will be “rain to large parts of New South Wales from Wednesday through to Friday before weakening over the northeast during Saturday,” the SES said, warning that major rivers would again flood by the end of the week.

Whan said damage estimates had already hit the “tens of millions [of dollars] in some shires alone” with the total likely to be significant given the large area affected.

Crop losses were also a major issue, and Whan said the inundation was a harsh blow for farmers who had just emerged from 10 years of drought.