- Associated Press - Thursday, January 20, 2011

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — A surging river Thursday flooded and isolated the latest community hit in Australia’s deadly flood disaster, straining a levee serving as the main protection between the muddy waters and residents’ homes.

The flooding in Kerang, in the southeast state of Victoria, follows weeks of massive flooding in northeastern Queensland that the government says could be the nation’s most expensive natural disaster ever. It shut down much of Queensland’s lucrative coal industry and has caused 30 deaths.

The floods appeared to have claimed another life when the body of a 3-year-old boy was found Wednesday in floodwaters near his family’s home in the small community of Marthaguy, in New South Wales state, south of Queensland. Officials said Thursday they were still investigating how the boy died and had no further details.

Walls of water miles wide are now surging across northern and western Victoria in the wake of record rainfall last week. Seventy-two Victorian towns have already been affected by rising waters, 1,770 properties have been flooded and more than 3,500 people have evacuated their homes.

Floodwaters in the Kerang region are the highest they’ve been in more than 100 years, said Kim Healey, a spokeswoman with the State Emergency Service. Up to 1,500 homes in the town could be inundated if the levee holding back the water from the swollen Lodden River gives way. It has held out so far, but water levels were expected to remain high for several days.

“The primary concern is the ability of the levee to withstand high flood levels for an extended period of time,” Ms. Healey said.

Other communities were at risk of inundation for the next few days as water levels continue to rise in several areas. Residents of Dimboola, a town of about 2,000 in the state’s northwest, were asked to evacuate Thursday as the Wimmera River that runs through the community surged higher.

“This flood event is still far from over,” said Tim Wiebusch, director of operations for the State Emergency Service. “We are likely to see this flood emergency continuing for at least another seven to ten days.”

The government has said the Queensland floods could be the country’s most expensive natural disaster ever, but has not yet released estimates of the costs. Some estimates already were at $5 billion before muddy brown waters swamped the capital, Brisbane, last week.

“People’s homes are stripped, they’ve got nothing. We’ve got to rebuild their homes and help them rebuild their lives,” Queensland Premier Anna Bligh told Australia’s Seven network on Thursday. “So recovery is still a long way down the track — inch by inch, street by street.”

Severe thunderstorms on Wednesday night dumped more rain onto Brisbane and the Lockyer Valley west of the city, which was devastated by raging floodwaters last week. The storms knocked out power to thousands and caused flash floods that swept two cars off the road near Brisbane.

One car was swept into a creek by the torrent, but officials plucked all the occupants to safety, Queensland police said. Another car in a nearby Brisbane suburb was also pulled into a creek, but the driver managed to escape safely on his own, police said.