- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 11, 2011

BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — Greg Kowald was driving through the center of Toowoomba when a terrifying, tsunamilike wall of water roared through the streets of the northeast Australian city.

Office windows exploded; cars careened into trees and bobbed in the churning brown water like corks. The deluge washed away bridges and sidewalks; people desperately clung to power poles to survive. Before it was over, the flash flood left at least 10 dead and 78 missing.

“The water was literally leaping, 6 or 10 feet into the air, through creeks and over bridges and into parks,” Mr. Kowald, a 53-year-old musician, told the Associated Press on Tuesday. “There was nowhere to escape, even if there had been warnings. There was just a sea of water about a kilometer (half a mile) wide.”

The violent surge in Toowoomba brought the overall death toll from weeks of flooding in Queensland state to 20, a sudden acceleration in a crisis that had been unfolding gradually with swollen rivers overflowing their banks and inundating towns while moving toward the ocean.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said there were “grave fears” for at least 18 of those missing.

The high waters headed next to Australia‘s third-largest city, Brisbane, where up to 9,000 homes were expected to be swamped. The Brisbane River overflowed its banks Tuesday, and officials warned that dozens of low-lying neighborhoods and parts of downtown could be inundated in coming days.

But nothing downstream was expected to be as fierce as the flash flood that struck Toowoomba on Monday. It was sparked by a freak storm — up to 6 inches fell in half an hour.

“There was water coming down everywhere in biblical proportions,” Toowoomba Council member Joe Ramia told the AP.

Mr. Ramia, 63, was driving downtown when the flash flood struck. He parked his car and dashed on foot for higher ground, keeping an eye on the carnage unfolding below: cars transformed into scrap metal as they were flung into an elevated railway line, giant metal industrial bins tossed about as if made of paper, a man clinging desperately to a power pole as the relentless tide surged around him.

Mr. Ramia watched as a rescue official pushed through the churning water and yanked the man to safety. Others, including five children, were not as lucky and were swept to their deaths.

“You were powerless to do a thing,” said Mr. Ramia, a lifelong resident of Toowoomba. “While we can rebuild, you can’t replace people. … I’ve never seen anything like this.”

The raging water was strong enough to rip houses off their foundations. Leroy Shephard, who lives in the town of Grantham, east of Toowoomba, was inside his home when the flood struck.

“You could feel the whole house just pop up off its stumps, turn around and go — for a 100 meters (330 feet) or something down my back yard,” Mr. Shephard told Australian Broadcasting Corp.

He and his family spent five hours on the roof of the house waiting for the waters to drop.

“It’s not a good feeling having the floorboards under your feet just ripple, the whole house just ripple and crack, and watching rooms just disappear,” he said.

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