- Associated Press - Monday, January 10, 2011

BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — Flash floods swept through an Australian city Monday, killing at least four people, trapping others in cars and leaving some clinging to trees as relentless rains brought more misery to a region battling its worst flooding in decades.

The raging torrent of muddy water picked up cars and tossed them like toys, carried away furniture as it washed through stores and prompted scores of emergency calls as it swamped Toowoomba, a city of about 90,000 in Queensland state in the northeast.

At least four people were killed, including one female pedestrian, Queensland Fire and Rescue Service Assistant Commissioner Tom Dawson said.

Officials urged residents of low-lying communities downstream from Toowoomba to immediately move to higher ground as more flash floods were possible.

Video taken in Toowoomba shows a man clutching a tree as the gushing water sweeps down a street, pushing vehicles off the road, into each other and flinging one van into trees. One small sedan was tossed about in murky brown rapids.

“We’ve had multiple calls requesting urgent assistance from people caught in vehicles, caught on the street, caught in flood ways,” said Queensland Deputy Police Commissioner Ian Stewart, adding the flash flood happened with no warning.

It was the latest drama for water-weary Queensland, which has been devastated by weeks of pounding rains and overflowing rivers. Fourteen people have died since late November and about 200,000 have been affected by the floods. Roads and rail lines have been cut, Queensland’s big-exporting coal mine industry has virtually shut down, and cattle ranching and farming across a large part of the state are at a standstill.

Mt. Dawson said his group recorded 90 emergency calls from people in conditions that were considered the be life-threatening. Several people were rescued, and officials were still struggling to respond to all of the calls.

The waters disappeared almost as fast as they arrived, leaving debris strewn throughout downtown Toowoomba and — in one place — cars piled atop one another.

Video from Toowoomba showed the rescue of one man hanging onto a tree amid the churning waters. Others were stranded on the roof of a building, and on the roof of a submerged car.

Toowoomba resident Sarah Gordon said she saw at least 15 cars washed away by the floodwaters.

“A lot of cars got swept down the road … right down the creek,” she said. “A few people were trapped, but they luckily got out.”

Muddy waters also flowed through the main street in the city of Gympie, one of more than 40 Queensland communities to be drenched by overflowing rivers. Gympie residents were frantically sandbagging buildings, but about a dozen businesses were inundated by Monday and dozens more were at risk as the Mary River burst its banks and kept rising.

The flooding in Gympie, home to 16,000 people, was not as bad as that elsewhere in recent weeks, when entire towns were submerged beneath an inland sea the size of France and Germany combined. But it was a sign the ground has little capacity left to soak up any more moisture, so any new rain is likely to make matters worse, officials said.

Queensland officials have said the price of rebuilding homes, businesses and infrastructure, coupled with economic losses, could be as high as $5 billion.

Some areas of Queensland have had more than 13 inches of rain in the past 24 hours, the Bureau of Meteorology said Monday.

Up to 80 businesses and homes were at risk in Gympie, said Mayor Tony Perrett, and police were planning to knock on doors warning residents they may need to flee, Perrett said.

The water was 5 feet deep at Gympie’s Royal Hotel on Monday.

“You want to cry,” the hotel’s assistant manager Jess Philpot said. “It’s going to go up to the roof.”

Residents of the town of Dalby, west of Brisbane, were evacuated Monday as rising waters threatened to inundate homes that had just begun drying out after another round of flooding two weeks ago.

Dalby Mayor Ray Brown said the town has been cut in half by the swollen Myall Creek, which also overflowed on Dec. 27, leaving 100 homes awash in murky water.

Heavy rains were also leaving low-lying communities along the Brisbane River, which flows through the state capital of Brisbane, vulnerable to flash flooding, the Bureau of Meteorology warned. Officials have offered residents sandbags, and suggested they have emergency kits ready.

Residents of some of the affected communities have returned home and begun mopping up sludge left behind by the floods, while others — including in the city of Rockhampton, home to 75,000 people — are still waiting for floodwaters to recede to start the cleanup.

Australia’s worst flooding in some 50 years was caused by tropical rains that fell for days, starting just before Christmas. About 1,200 homes were inundated and almost 11,000 more have water damage. Nearly 4,000 people were evacuated, and many are still staying with friends or in relief shelters.

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