- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 12, 2011

BRISBANE, Australia | Inch by inch, block by block, floods consumed Australia’s third-largest city, creeping across suburban yards Wednesday and streaming through downtown streets darkened by power outages and largely emptied of people.

The waters poured into Brisbane, topping traffic lights on some streets, after marching across Queensland state for weeks. Roads shut throughout the city, and people moved about in kayaks, rowboats and even on surfboards. Boats torn from their moorings floated down an engorged river.

Residents of the city’s low-lying areas headed in the thousands for higher ground, while others chose to ride it out as the waters approached their expected peak early Thursday.

The flooding, which has killed 22 people since late November, has submerged dozens of towns - some three times - and left an area the size of Germany and France combined under water. Highways and rail lines have been washed away in the disaster, which is shaping up to be Australia’s costliest ever.

With at least 43 people missing, the death toll is expected to rise. Many of those unaccounted for disappeared from around Toowoomba, a city west of Brisbane that saw massive flash floods sweep away cars, road signs and people. Twelve died in that flood alone.

The toll has shocked Australians, no strangers to deadly natural disasters like the wildfires that killed 173 in a single day two years ago.

In contrast to the wall of water that swallowed Toowoomba, Brisbane’s crisis has been marked by the waters’ slow but steady progress.

On Wednesday, emergency sirens blared across Brisbane as the floodwaters entered an empty downtown and began swamping neighborhoods.

The surging, muddy waters reached the tops of traffic lights in some parts of Brisbane, and Mayor Campbell Newman said at least 20,000 homes would likely be damaged. Brisbane’s office buildings stood empty Wednesday with the normally bustling central business district transformed into a watery ghost town.

Police went door to door in some neighborhoods advising people to leave. Five evacuation centers were open with room for 16,000 people.

The Brisbane River is expected to reach its height on Thursday, at a depth slightly lower the that of 1974 floods that swept the city.

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