Queensland floods: Rockhampton braces for flood peak

The BBC's Nick Bryant: 'We just saw a snake nearby'

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The Australian city of Rockhampton is bracing itself as devastating flood waters are expected to reach their highest levels in the next 12-18 hours.

Military aircraft are rushing to get supplies to residents, to whom there is only one land access route left.

Police are urging people to stay out of the snake-infested waters, that have claimed the lives of three people.

In other areas of Queensland, residents are beginning the recovery process, while others prepare for fresh floods.

At the scene

The major highway through the city looks more like a major river. Were it not for the tops of road signs poking out it would be unrecognisable as one of Australia's main arterial routes.

In its lower-lying suburbs 150 houses are already under water, and more than 400 people have fled their homes. A coast city at the mouth of the swollen Fitzroy River, this should be the last stop before the surging floodwaters reach the ocean, but it's thought Rockhampton could be under water for the next 10 days.

When it was last hit by major flooding in 1991, Rockhampton became an island city for a fortnight. At present just one road, to the north, remains passable. Police are urging locals to stay out of the murky floodwaters, which are riddled with deadly snakes and even crocodiles.

More than 20 towns across a huge swathe of Queensland have been cut off or flooded, and more than 200,000 people affected.

In the southern town of St George, residents are on heightened alert after the weather bureau predicted a peak that would inundate 80% of the town.

Meanwhile in Emerald, locals have begun sifting through their flood-damaged belongings, as flood waters recede from the Nogoa River that flooded more than 1,000 houses.

The flood crisis has also had a huge impact on the region's coal industry.

Premier Anna Bligh said 75% of operations have been halted at the state's coal fields, which supply just under half of the world's coking coal needed in steel manufacturing.

Impassable

Rockhampton is at the centre of the state's flood emergency, with its 75,000 residents bracing for the Fitzroy River to peak at about 9.4m (31ft).

Mayor Brad Carter told the BBC that levels were currently about 9.2m, and warned that the floods may not recede for weeks.

More than 500 homes in the city have been evacuated but some residents are refusing to leave, Australian broadcaster ABC reported.

A major highway north of the city is still open but officials say it could be impassable within hours.

Graphic showing the history of Rockhampton floods

With Rockhampton's airport closed, supplies are being delivered to the city by military helicopters and barges.

With the flood peak still several hours away and many residents refusing to leave, emergency services are preparing to rescue those in trouble.

Emergency teams have set up a "tactical medical centre" with dozens of tents at the small airport in the coal port of Gladstone, about 100km (60 miles) south of Rockhampton.

Jason Foss owns a small business in Rockhampton. He told the BBC: "It is a nightmare. Daily life has become incredibly complicated. Many roads remain impassable. The authorities have warned residents to be wary of snakes and crocodiles.

"Our business has suffered the brunt. I've just started clearing out the flood damage. Ripping out all the carpets, throwing out ruined desks and binning water-logged computers. The emotional cost is staggering."

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has described the situation as "a major natural disaster" and said recovery would take "a significant amount of time".

The US was the latest nation to offer its assistance in the recovery of Queensland.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: "Australia is an important partner and close friend of the United States and we stand ready to provide assistance."

Map showing flood-hit areas

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