The floods devastating a vast area of Australia were last night predicted to worsen with the threat of fresh heavy rainfall, as thousands of people flee their homes and the authorities fight a disaster of "biblical proportions".
A woman swept away while trying to cross one of dozens of swollen rivers in Queensland became the latest of what is thought to be eight victims of the deluge. It has put an area the size of France and combined under water and affected 200,000 people in Australia's third-most-populous state. So far, 22 towns have been inundated.
The coastal town of Rockhampton, some 300 miles north of Brisbane and home to 75,000 people, was the focus of an emergency operation yesterday after all its road and rail links were cut off and its airport closed. Some 1,400 homes have been abandoned and the mayor warned that 40 per cent of the town could be affected by surging waters of up to 30ft, which are not expected to peak for another 72 hours.
Officials said that the clean-up costs from the flooding, which has hit about half of Queensland's 715,305 square miles of territory, would reach billions of pounds. The human and economic cost of the disaster could yet deepen after forecasters warned that a severe storm due to cross the southern half of the state overnight would bring with it damaging winds, renewed heavy rainfall, hailstones and further flash flooding.
Alistair Dawson, Queensland's acting assistant police commissioner, said: "It's hard to make the call that the worst is behind us. It's a unique event – parts of the state are still in response mode while others are in recovery. I think we're in the middle of the event."
Days of heavy rain in the last week saw a tide of muddy water sweep across the state, breaking the banks of 10 rivers as it made its way down from a huge inland catchment area to the coast. States of natural disaster are declared in 41 of Queensland's 73 municipalities.
Coastal communities such as Rockhampton will bear the brunt of the torrent over the next three days with about 1,000 people in evacuation centres across the state and thousands more waiting anxiously to see how fast the waters rise. Forecasters have predicted that the water level in Rockhampton could be as high as 30ft, prompting the authorities to contemplate forced evacuations.
Andrew Fraser, the treasurer of Queensland, said: "In many ways it is a disaster of biblical proportions."
The body of a woman was recovered in Burketown on Saturday night after her car was swept away while trying to cross a flooded causeway.
As many as eight people, including a swimmer and fisherman, are now missing, feared dead, as a result of the floods. Mr Dawson said "We're just grateful there weren't more casualties. We're focused on preventing any more."
Further inland, residents were yesterday returning to pick through the ruins of their homes as the initial floodwaters receded. In Emerald, about 170 miles inland from Rockhampton, some residents defied advice to stay away and began to inspect their properties.
More than a thousand houses had been inundated by floodwater and most of the town's businesses have been affected, prompting the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, to announce this weekend a payment of up to A$1,000 (£650) per person to Queenslanders who have lost their homes.
One local, Joe Chapman, said nearly 2ft of water was sloshing around his house. He said: "I think it would be at least seven or eight days before we get it into some sort of shape to live in."
Another resident, Michelle Jackson, said the damage was worse than she had feared. She said: "I'm teary just looking at our place. I can't believe furniture has moved around in the house and it's all in the water. There are things I thought were high enough and they're now down in the water."
Warren Bridson, the director general of emergency management, said: "It will be a heartbreaking return to homes for a lot of Queenslanders."
Amid fears of looting and plans to fly in troops to help the recovery, there were warnings that the floods will have an economic impact on Queensland, which accounts for about a fifth of Australia's £800bn economy. The state last year spent more than £500m on relief from natural disasters, much on the effects of a severe drought. Now weeks of rain has destroyed crops, including the cotton harvest, halted coal deliveries and closed mines, which make valuable payments to the state government.
As the water receded in some areas, a new threat emerged, this time from wildlife. Authorities warned that the floodwaters had brought out a plague of dangerous pests, including snakes.