Snakes Add New Plague for Flood-Stricken Australians

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Daniel Munoz / Reuters

A snake crosses a highway near Rockhampton, a town on the Queensland coast in Australia, on Jan. 3, 2011

Correction Appended: January 10, 2010

In the past two weeks, the worst flooding in Queensland's recent history has taken 10 lives, inundated 40 communities, caused an estimated $9 billion loss to export revenue and cost the country at least $5 billion in damages. And as the rain slows down today in some areas, residents of flood-stricken zones find themselves with yet another predicament: they are not the only ones scrambling to get on dry land.

In Rockhampton, a town of 77,000 on the Queensland coast, crocodiles, brown snakes and taipans, another, less common snake species in the area, have been emerging from the murky floodwaters, looking for shelter from their now underwater habitats and endangering residents and emergency workers. Staff at the Rockhampton airport have compared the watery runway there to a wildlife park. Safety officer Kevin Lucas told the Australian on Thursday that he has killed around 40 snakes at the airport, one of which he likened to the Loch Ness Monster. "They're everywhere," he said. "They've all been washed down the system and this is where they've ended up."

So far, no one has died in a snake or croc attack, but the species are lethal. According to the University of Sydney, 3,000 people are bitten by snakes each year in Australia, but usually there are no more than one or two deaths. "Brown snakes are more common and less intimidated by people, they are also more nervous, and more likely to bite," says Ken Winkel, the director of the Australian Venom Research Unit at the University of Melbourne. "Taipans have longer fangs," he says. "So while they are less likely to attack you, you are more likely to die from their bite."

On Thursday, the mayor of Rockhampton Regional Council, Brad Carter, warned residents who choose to remain in their homes that they will be cut off from receiving emergency supplies as he does not want staff members traveling in snake-infested waters. "We have taken a decision, and we make it very clear, that we cannot put emergency-services resources at risk bringing in those supplies," he says. Extra antivenom has been flown in to Rockhampton to deal with the potential spike in snakebites.

Snakes are common in areas of high rainfall around the world. In Bangladesh, snakebites are the second highest cause of unnatural death, after drowning. The bulk of those deaths occur during monsoon season. "When you get flooding in certain areas and their habitat is disturbed, snakes go to higher ground," says Winkel. Winkel warns that all snakes should be treated with extreme caution; others aren't as alarmed. "It's not dangerous," says Joe Adair, the team leader of Wildlife in the Central Region at the Department of Environment and Resource Management. "It's not unusual [that] snakes and other animals look for dry ground. People just need to [take] precaution and be mindful."

Queenslanders will have to be mindful for a while, even when the water does dry up. Queensland Health has warned residents that it will likely be a breeding ground for mosquitoes and other insects in months to come. Meanwhile, more rainfall is expected over the weekend, as the floods could make their way south to New South Wales later this month. The Bureau of Meteorology issued a minor-flood warning to New South Wales on Jan. 7. Fears of more floods are also driving the Australian dollar down, and its value has dropped from 99.95 U.S. cents to 99.26 in the past two days.

The original version of this story stated that the value of the Australian dollar dropped from 99.95 U.S. cents to 99.93 in the stated period. The correct number for the date in question is 99.26.