Australia floods: 72 missing and at least eight dead

The BBC's Nick Bryant: "The authorities thought they were getting in control'

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Officials in the Australian state of Queensland say at least 72 people are missing after flash floods which have already claimed eight lives.

A massive deluge overwhelmed Toowoomba, a city west of the state capital Brisbane, without warning.

Sandbags have been given out to residents of Brisbane, where the flooding may not peak until Wednesday.

State Premier Anna Bligh called the flash floods Queensland's "darkest hour" since the flood crisis began.

At least two of the dead were children, Ms Bligh said, and she warned that the death toll was likely to rise.

"The event that started in Toowoomba can only be described as a complete freak of nature, an extraordinary deluge that almost came out of nowhere," the Australian Broadcasting Corporation quoted Ms Bligh as saying.

"What we have here in Queensland tonight is a very grim and desperate situation."

Map

Helicopters have joined the rescue operation to reach those trapped in cars and on the roofs of buildings.

Toowomba resident Charlie Green told the BBC he was stranded by the floods.

"It would be ironic if it wasn't so tragic," he said. "Toowoomba sits in the cradle of an extinct volcano about 2,000 feet (610m) above sea level, and we have just endured 10 years of drought, unable even to wash our cars with town water for the last several years.

"We are going to sit tight until we're sure that it's safe to move around. The flooded creeks are within a mile of our house so we can't get anywhere.

"We can't even get down the hill. We'll be stocking up on supplies from local shops."

The tropical storms began in November, triggering the worst flooding in the state in decades. Some 200,000 people have been affected across Queensland.

The flooding has been so widespread that while some communities are still bracing themselves for the worst, in others the clean-up is well under way.

The forecast is for more rain to come, and there are reports of flooding in neighbouring New South Wales.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has warned that the recovery will take a long time.

'No warning'

Police said a woman and had child died in Toowoomba when their car was washed away, and a man and a boy died after being swept from their house.

Toowoomba's mayor described the scale of the floods as "unbelievable'' and said the city was in shock.

Flash floods flow through a street in Toowoomba on 10 January 2011 Residents said the flash floods had devastated the town

Mayor Peter Taylor said: ''It's a real disaster scene where I'm standing at the moment in Russell Street, Toowoomba. There's furniture and furnishings and it's just blown shops away.

''We have a railway line about 60 or 70 metres (230ft) suspended in mid-air and two cars that are virtually unrecognisable that have floated and smashed into the rail.''

Queensland Deputy Police Commissioner Ian Stewart said there had been many calls from people needing to be rescued and that emergency crews were struggling to cope.

"We've had multiple calls requesting urgent assistance from people caught in vehicles, caught on the street, caught in flood ways," he said.

"It is an evolving and obviously quite desperate situation for them," he said. "There has been no warning of this event."

This is some of the most violent and frightening flooding that Queensland has yet witnessed, says the BBC's correspondent in Australia, Nick Bryant.

One eyewitness said vehicles were being swept down streets.

"One car we did see come down with its lights on, it ended up crashing into one of the power poles and people were in it for quite a while before they were rescued," Deanna Ward told state broadcaster ABC.

Heavy rain has lashed the region for the last 36 hours, with 16cm (6in) falling in just one hour. Most of the rainwater hit an already saturated catchment.

The enduring floods in Queensland have washed away roads and railways, destroyed crops and brought the coal industry to a near standstill.

The state premier has estimated that the price of rebuilding homes, businesses and infrastructure, coupled with economic losses, could exceed A$5bn (£3bn).

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